Candidates for NM’s highest courts promise law without politics

Those hoping to sit on state’s appellate courts, from both parties, pledge ‘impartiality’

By: - October 31, 2022 4:30 am

The front door of the New Mexico Supreme Court in Santa Fe, right next door to the Court of Appeals. Candidates are vying for four seats on both appellate courts, and two sitting appellate judges are running for retention. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

Candidates from both major parties trying to get on New Mexico’s appellate courts have a similar message: They will be impartial in their rulings, unlike their opponents.

Thomas Montoya, a Republican from Alameda, is running for a seat on the New Mexico Supreme Court.

A Montoya campaign advertisement published Sept. 29 touts his position on the New Mexico Crime Victims Reparation Commission.

In the ad, Montoya said he is running “because I’m committed to making legal decisions based on the law — not politics.”

This is a nod to a slate of four Republican candidates running for the state’s appellate courts.

“By maintaining a focus on the law, each candidate pledges to make legal decisions in accordance with the constitution and the law, and not the politics of any political party,” the slate’s website says.

However, the slate is openly partisan: It goes on to say that with all but one of the seats on the appellate courts held by Democrats, “four judicial candidates will help to address this imbalance.”

The slate also highlights its endorsement by the Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association, whose president regularly weighs in on politics to say police need less oversight and more public funding.

The end of a campaign advertisement for Kerry Morris, a Republican from Albuquerque, in large bolded font, reads “POLICE ENDORSED.”

“We believe you will continue to assist law enforcement in their effort to make our community a safe and enjoyable place in which to live,” Albuquerque police union president and political action committee chairman Shaun Willoughby wrote in a letter to Morris this spring.

The website for Morris’ law firm touts his work as a prosecutor in the Albuquerque area, and his campaign website states that “crime is out of control” and that people “look to the courts for balance and stability.”

“New Mexico’s highest court should be politically agnostic to prevent interference on important decisions,” the website continues.

In a campaign advertisement, Albuquerque Republican Barbara Johnson says she is “committed to keeping political interests from influencing court decisions.”

“She believes political interference prevents judges from doing their job to the best of their abilities and, should she be elected to the New Mexico Court of Appeals, she will work hard to ensure that no decisions are made based on the will of a political party or politician,” the website announces.

According to her campaign, Johnson’s experience in family law gives her insight into “divorce, custody battles, property and real estate disputes, business issues, crime, and domestic violence.”

On Friday, none of the four candidates on the slate were immediately available to comment on what cases they think have been determined solely by political interests rather than the law, or vice versa. We will update this story if we hear back.

The rhetoric about judicial impartiality and hand-wringing over the “politicization of the judiciary” is nothing new, and in New Mexico, it is not limited to the Republican candidates.

Judge Gerald Baca, the incumbent Democrat from Las Vegas running for reelection to the Court of Appeals, appears in a campaign advertisement first in his official robes and then in his youth basketball referee uniform.

The ad echoes famous comments about a different sport from now Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts. When he was still a nominee before the Senate in 2005, Roberts said, “It’s my job to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat.”

The Baca campaign ad’s narrator goes on to say his approach is the same on the Court of Appeals and the basketball court: “Be fair and impartial for New Mexicans.”

The political environment in the 2022 campaign cycle is also spurring candidates from both parties to present themselves as ready to take on the issue of crime.

Supreme Court Justice Briana Zamora, a Democrat from Albuquerque, is running for reelection. Voters first put her on the bench in 2018.

A Zamora campaign advertisement touts her work as an assistant attorney general representing children facing abuse and her record as a judge having presided over 20,000 cases, “sentencing some of the most violent offenders.”

She holds endorsements from the Santa Fe police officer and firefighter unions, the state branch of the AFL-CIO, the Central NM Labor Council, the carpenters’ union and the Teamsters local.

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.