Strange bedfellows – a pair of people, things or groups connected in a certain situation or activity but extremely different in overall characteristics, opinions, ideologies, lifestyles or behaviors.
– The Free Dictionary
Politics and judges do not mix. At least, in an ideal world, the two should not.
Politicians promise and create laws and policies that govern our communities. Judges resolve disputes through impartial fact-finding and equal enforcement of the law. Obviously, one has nothing to do with the other.
Unfortunately, anyone who wants to serve as a judge in New Mexico cannot avoid the political arena, at least in the early stages of a judicial career.
And fortunately, to a certain extent New Mexico over the years has removed political influence from the judicial selection process.
Take for example the appointment of a new judge to fill a vacancy on one of our courts. The New Mexico Judicial Nominating Commission convenes and interviews all applicants interested in filling the vacancy. The commission, which is bipartisan, narrows the list to qualified individuals who are recommended to the governor. The governor then selects the new judge from this list. This process is merit-based and has resulted in qualified judges filling judicial vacancies.
Another good example is the judicial retention system. Once a judge in New Mexico survives a legally mandated contested race, he or she stands only for future retention elections. The retention system did away with judges having to campaign against opponents every time they wanted to serve another term.
The hybrid contested/retention judicial election system in New Mexico reduces political influence, but not all of it. Contested elections undeniably are political in nature. Judicial candidates have to raise money, attend gatherings and ask voters for their support. They also must be registered with one of the major parties in the state. By contrast, retention elections are more about voters evaluating judges on their judicial record, as it should be.
The problem with judicial contested elections is that the appearance of impropriety can hang heavy over such races. Judicial candidates cannot promise support or opposition on specific issues. However, it could appear to voters that such promises are in fact being made. And just as problematic is that judicial campaign contributions may give an appearance of a “pay-to-play” perception.
I was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Metropolitan Court bench in 2003. I had to run in a contested election in 2004. Outside of my family, friends and colleagues, no one knew me. So I had to raise money to inform the voters about who I was and why they should vote for me. The Judicial Code of Ethics limited what I could tell or otherwise represent to voters, and campaign fundraising came with its own strict set of rules and limitations. These safeguards were meant to prevent any appearance of impropriety.
Honestly? The whole campaign process, even with the safeguards, troubled me, and I was grateful when it was over. Specifically, accepting campaign contributions, even in the filtered way such contributions were allowed, made me very uncomfortable.
In 2019, I was appointed to fill a vacancy on the District Court, and once again I had to run in a contested election in 2020. And once again I attended gatherings, primarily to obtain signatures on a nominating petition to get my name on the ballot. However, this time around I decided not to accept any campaign donations, and instead I spent my own cash on my limited campaign expenses. By then, I had been on the bench for 16 years, and I did not feel right about accepting campaign contributions from anyone.
As I write this column, there is a proposed bill before the Legislature, Senate Bill 160, which would provide limited public funding for district court judicial candidates. Ideally, this proposed legislation would reduce the need for campaign contributions in those judicial races and help to reduce any appearance of impropriety.
Serving as a judge in New Mexico is a great honor and privilege. The position carries great responsibility and power. The process for selecting our judges, therefore, should be free of all politics, either real or by appearance.
Judge Daniel Ramczyk is a judge of the 2nd Judicial District Court. Opinions expressed here are solely those of the judge individually and not those of the court.