Until 1988, New Mexico judges were elected by the people, in partisan elections, just like senators, governors, etc.
We got good, bad, ugly. But they generally reflected the politics of the voters.
In 1986, the Bernalillo County GOP ran a full slate of judge candidates, with the slogan “Criminals Hate Republican Judges.” Of about 20 candidates, six got elected.
The (10 percent Republican) ABQ Bar found this so offensive and threatening, they immediately set out to amend the state constitution, so this could never happen again. The result was the “merit selection” system.
Judicial hopefuls are reviewed by a panel of lawyers and laymen, sending a list to the governor, from which the governor must pick. Seems like a good idea.
The problem with “merit” is, unlike math or physics, law has no provably “right” answers. Law is politics, written on paper.
Merit is whatever a majority of lawyers says it is, and defense attorneys far outnumber prosecutors.
Although the selection panels are theoretically politically balanced, my own experience shows otherwise.
I ran unsuccessfully in 1986, against the Democrats’ flagship candidate. The next year, I submitted my name for selection. (The panels already existed, as advisory bodies.)
I expected a panel of gung-ho Democrats and “domesticated” Republicans.
I got a panel where my Republican “lay person” was the law-student wife of the judge I had run against.
I got no serious questions from the panel. They did make it clear they were offended I had run against her husband.
It’s not surprising that the selections of these panels better represent the politics of the bar than the public. “Merit” = mercy.
Kenneth S. McDaniel
(Editor’s note: Magistrate and probate court judges must still run in partisan elections. The nomination process referred to above applies to district court, court of appeals and state supreme court judges, who must also stand for retention votes from the public.)