House Judiciary Chairman Zachary Cook, R-Ruidoso, has introduced House Joint Resolution 11, which would ask voters to amend the state constitution to eliminate partisan elections of judges. It would not apply to magistrates and justices of the peace, but would apply to state Supreme Court justices, and Court of Appeals, District Court and Metropolitan Court judges.
Currently, judges in those four courts are appointed by the governor from lists of candidates selected by a bipartisan nominating commission chaired by the dean of the University of New Mexico School of Law.
Then, however, they must run in one partisan election, where they often face an opponent who has avoided the vetting of the nominating commission.
After that, judges face only nonpartisan retention elections. Voters in those elections have the benefit of reviews by the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission.
Cook’s resolution eliminates the partisan election step, which is a major flaw in a merit system.
New Mexico Judge Alan Malott writes:
in the late 1970s, New Mexico elected its judges through ordinary partisan elections. Not surprisingly, the dominant political party produced most of the sitting judges statewide. In 1988, voters approved a constitutional amendment that substituted a hybrid system for purely partisan elections.
This system provides that a judge is initially appointed by the governor, after being screened by a bipartisan nominating commission. But the judge must take on all comers in the next general election cycle, often only a few weeks or months after his or her appointment.
If successful in that partisan contest, the judge is subject to nonpartisan retention elections every six years and remains in office if 57 percent of the voters want to keep them there.