2006: Your Vote Can Help Improve Our Judiciary

By Felix Briones, Jr., Chair
New Mexico Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission

In the upcoming general election, voters will be asked whether to retain one New Mexico Supreme Court justice and three Court of Appeals judges who are standing for retention. Under the state’s constitution, these individuals must receive at least 57 percent voter approval to remain on the bench. Unlike politicians, justices and judges standing for retention typically do not make “campaign speeches,” take a position on various issues or run advertisements, so how is a voter to decide? In 1997, the New Mexico Supreme Court created a nonpartisan commission, the New Mexico Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission (JPEC), to provide information to voters.

JPEC is made up of 15 members, including seven lawyers and eight non-lawyers, who spend hundreds of hours conducting evaluations. JPEC uses an objective, carefully-monitored process to evaluate justices and judges standing for retention in four main areas:

  • legal ability
  • fairness
  • communication skills
  • preparation, attentiveness, temperament and control over proceedings

Confidential surveys are distributed by an independent research firm to those individuals who have had direct contact or interaction with the justice or judge being evaluated. Individuals receiving surveys for the appellate court judges (Supreme Court and Court of Appeals) include attorneys with direct experience, fellow appellate judges, trial court judges whose cases have been appealed, court staff, current and former law clerks, and law professors.

In addition, JPEC also conducts confidential, one-on-one interviews with each judge or justice being evaluated to review survey results and to review their self-assessment of performance.

We do not base our evaluations on specific opinions or rulings issued by the justice or judge. A review of opinions or rulings is the responsibility of the appellate courts. Instead, we focus on an overall evaluation of the justice’s or judge’s performance on the bench.

Since 1997, the JPEC has focused on two things:

Improving the performance of our state’s judiciary. Midway through a justice’s or judge’s term in office, JPEC conducts an interim evaluation. At that time, an Interim Evaluation Report is compiled, identifying a justice’s or judge’s strengths, weaknesses (if any) and a plan for improvement if needed. JPEC follows up with the justices or judges on their plans, requesting information on what specific actions they have taken to improve their performance; and

Providing meaningful and accurate information about the performance of New Mexico’s judges to the public. A Report to Voters containing JPEC’s evaluations and recommendations on whether voters should vote to retain justices and judges standing for retention is issued to the public at least 45 days before the general election.

I am pleased to report that we have seen improvement in the performance of our state’s justices and judges. This is due, in part, to the evaluations and the changes we have seen by those who have accepted and acted on our suggestions that they improve. Unfortunately, those judges who express little desire to improve and whose scores continue to decline are subject to “do not retain” recommendations from JPEC.

We have a duty to provide meaningful and accurate information about the performance of New Mexico’s justices and judges to the public for use in reaching decisions about retention of judges. That is why we report to the public on the overall performance of a judge. This entails reporting to voters on the positive and negative results judges receive from users of the courts – high ratings, mixed ratings, generally positive ratings or low ratings.

This year, we are making the following recommendations to voters statewide:

  • Retain Honorable Edward L. Chavez, Supreme Court of New Mexico
  • Retain Honorable Cynthia A. Fry, New Mexico Court of Appeals
  • Retain Honorable Lynn Pickard, New Mexico Court of Appeals
  • Retain Honorable Jim Wechsler, New Mexico Court of Appeals

All of these four appellate judges received outstanding marks from those surveyed. Further, even though our evaluations did not reveal specific areas for improvement, this justice and these judges show a willingness and a commitment to continually improve every aspect of their performance.

JPEC has done its part. Now it is up to every voter throughout the state of New Mexico. Please vote in all elections for which you are eligible – including the judicial retention elections.

Absentee voting begins October 10, 2006. Early voting begins October 21, 2006 and Election Day is November 7, 2006. Your vote does count, and we encourage you to do your part in improving our judiciary by making your voice heard.

For judicial performance evaluation information on each judge or justice, visit www.nmjpec.org or call Louise Baca-Sena at the Administrative Office of the Courts (505) 827-4960.

Felix Briones, Jr., is a Farmington attorney who serves as chair of JPEC. He has been a member of JPEC since 1997 and has practiced law since 1959.

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