BY JAMES RICKMAN
With the 2022 General Election fast approaching, I’d like to urge everyone to consider taking a little extra time to vet candidates for judicial elections to ensure that the public is well served.
Judicial elections rarely reach the level of excitement and buzz felt in other types of elections. It’s easy to see why. During campaign season, judicial candidates will often defer with a wink and a nod to the New Mexico Code of Judicial Conduct and recite a rote statement of “I will fairly and impartially follow the laws of the State of New Mexico” when asked about judicial philosophy. These candidates usually understand that their party holds the majority of voters or that they are the easy winners of any popularity contest within the party (during Primary season) or the jurisdiction they serve (during the General election). Consequently, many voters go to the polls knowing little about their choices, and cast votes based solely on party affiliation or even physical appearance.
The Code of Judicial Conduct does prohibit candidates from making “pledges, promises or commitments that are inconsistent with the impartial performance of the adjudicative duties of the judicial office” in connection with cases, controversies, or issues likely to come before the court. Nevertheless, the Code provides explicit guidance that:
“Pledges, promises, or commitments must be contrasted with statements or announcements of personal views on legal, political, or other issues, which are not prohibited. When making such statements, a judge or judicial candidate should acknowledge the overarching judicial obligation to apply and uphold the law, without regard to his or her personal views.” [Rule 21-401, Committee Commentary 6]
In other words, judicial candidates have latitude to discuss their philosophical, political, and personal views within the other strictures of Rule 21-401, Rule 21-402, and other applicable sections of the New Mexico Code of Judicial Conduct.
Even if a candidate declines to discuss their philosophies and beliefs (and most do), voters may still inquire about a candidate’s educational background, job history, party and professional affiliations, and other qualifications that might provide the intellectual, ethical, psychological, and moral foundation to serve effectively as a judge. As any human being understands, judges are not robots; the decisions they make while on the bench are not only dictated by the law, but also by the sum of their intellect, emotions, and experiences.
Please do yourself and your community the favor of taking time to research judicial candidates beyond just the brochures and abbreviated blurbs that briefly pop up in candidate profiles during election season. Judges are among the very few paid elected officials in this state, and their decisions touch every member of society, often far into the future.