Is The Judicial Watchdog In The Governor’s Lap?

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July 18, 2003 in New Mexico Politics | Comments (0)

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A half century ago, New Mexico’s judicial system was a mess.

Judges were powerful creatures of the Democratic Party who could be removed only by impeachment in the legislature, and this never happened.

A district judge threw newspaper columnist Will Harrison in jail for criticizing a decision, drawing national publicity.

Justices of the peace conspired with police to operate cash-only speed traps, prompting tourist organizations to boycot the state.

Around 1960 the legislature at long last developed enough courage to take on the judges, particularly the j.p.’s. The court reform movement created the magistrate system. More important, it laid the foundation for the Judicial Standards Commission, created in 1967 by constitutional amendment.

The leader of the early court-reform movement was Fabian Chavez, the Senate Democratic floor leader.

He’s 78 and living in Santa Fe with his wife Coral Jean and he still follows the courts. In a recent conversation he expressed concern over the State Supreme Court decision that concedes political control over the Judicial Standards Commission to the governor.

The commission is, after all, the judicial watchdog. And ordinary people with complaints about judges or magistrates are supposed to call the commission, not the governor’s office.

When a district judge in Santa Fe was caught shoplifting, when women in Las Vegas said a judge exchanged judicial favors for sexual favors, when a Supreme Court justice never showed up for work, and when magistrates were accused, as they continue to be, of corruption or drunkeness, it’s the Judicial Standards Commission that investigates. The commission receives a thousand complaints a year.
Fabian Chavez recalls that from the beginning the legislature wanted to be sure the commission would have a majority of non-lawyers. The philosophy was, in his words, “that the courts belong to the people.” But it was never the intent of the legislature to let the commission belong to the governor.

That’s why the six-member majority of laypeople was given five-year staggered terms. Staggered terms assure continuity. And this is what Gov. Bill Richardson disrupted in April by replacing all six lay members appointed over eight years by former Gov. Gary Johnson with his own people. The existing commissioners asked the Supreme Court to step in and stop him, but the court in a 3-2 decision earlier this month said it couldn’t.

The majority — Justices Petra Maes, Patricio Serna and Edward Chavez — agreed that the governor has undermined the staggered term system and disrupted the commission, but they said it was up to the legislature to stop him. This is unlikely. The current legislature has been going the other way — removing the limits on the governor’s power to fire Transportation Department commissioners, and so forth. It is not the legislature of Fabian Chavez and judicial reform.

The other two justices, Richard Bosson and Pamela Minzner, dissented on the basis that Richardson had violated the separation of powers, compromising the independence of the judiciary. Ironically, the majority opinion concluded by asking for more money for the commission. Minzner said it was “unfortunate” that the underfunded judicial watchdog was disrupted by the wholesale replacement of six of the 11 members.