The Race to NM Supreme Court

By Allison Giron and Fin Martinez / NM News Port

New Mexico voters have an opportunity to elect a judge to the state’s highest court this November. The NM Supreme Court race is between incumbent Justice Judith Nakamura (R) and her challenger, Chief Judge Michael J. Vigil (D) of the NM Court of Appeals.

State Supreme Court judges have the final say on state laws — a power to interpret law and set precedents.

The candidates are both experienced but bring different interpretations of how the law should be executed.

Nakamura says she follows the principle that the law should be executed as it reads, while Vigil says he considers the long term effects of a decision.

Nakamura appointed in 2015

In 2015, NM Supreme Court Justice Richard Bosson retired, leaving an open seat on the NM Supreme Court. To fill his position, four names were submitted to Gov. Susana Martinez for appointment, including the names of Justice Nakamura and Judge Vigil. Martinez appointed Nakamura to the seat.

In a press release Gov. Martinez said she chose Nakamura based on her leadership skills and because she’s “an advocate for public safety and she has a proven track record of working to keep our families safe.”

Now, according to the NM Constitution, Nakamura must run for retention in the next partisan election — which is this year.

In the June 7 primary, Justice Nakamura and Judge Vigil became the nominees for their respective parties, each running unopposed. Since then both candidates have been campaigning while continuing their judicial duties.

Vigil brings 39 years of legal experience

Judge Michael J. Vigil has practiced law as an attorney for 27 years before his appointment to the NM Court of Appeals in 2003. During his tenure as an attorney he saw cases from all 13 judicial districts in the state. According to Vigil and his campaign website he has had a hand in some 50 precedent-setting cases. Judge Vigil said his experience in cases ranging from civil to domestic abuse, and in jury and nonjury trials is important to his list of qualifications.

“I’ve been on the NM court of appeals, for now 13 years, I’ve sat on over 3000 cases, 300 appeals affecting the entire state and I’ve been author on over 1000 of those cases,” Vigil said, “I’m very very blessed to have that combination of experiences.”

Nakamura brings 17 years of jurist experience

Incumbent New Mexico Supreme Court Justice, Judith Nakamura has served 17 years as a jurist. Prior to her service on the Supreme Court, Nakamura was appointed to the Second Judicial District Court of Albuquerque, in 2013. Before that, she was a Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court judge for more than 14 years, beginning in 1998 and was the chief judge from 2002 to 2013 according to her website. Justice Nakamura said her extensive criminal division experience in the metropolitan and second judicial district court systems are important factors that highly qualify her.

“As a judge who had to live by those rules and understood the impact of those rules, and how they affect the flow of your cases”, Nakamura said, “That’s important experiences that I now get to share first hand as a judge having been impacted by those decisions.”

Their Decision Processes

Judge Vigil describes his judicial decision process as an act of recognizing personal bias but making decisions on behalf of the law and its application to a particular case, recognizing subjectivity but acting objectively.

“I’ve been very vigilant in making sure that I’m not deciding this case on the emotion of the moment of what happened to that child or that victim, but that I am applying the law in the way that it’s meant to be applied to the issue in the case,” Vigil said.

Justice Nakamura describes her judicial process as not being labeled to either a strict constructionist or liberal, but rather her job is to get it right, faithfully follow the constitutional laws, and leaving personal opinions and biases out of the final decision.

“My philosophy has always been straight pretty forward. My philosophy is get it right…To read the law, to read the constitution, to ensure the law doesn’t violate the decision, statue or whatever it might be,” Nakamura said, “My number one job is to get it right following the constitution of the united states, the constitution of new mexico and then applying the statues of our legislature.”

Funding and Spending

For his campaign, Judge Vigil has spent over $184 thousand with $138 thousand being spent in this past filing period. The funds were spent on advertising, event sponsorships, other expenditures, similar to the previous three periods. Only in the first primary period did Vigil’s expenditures have invoices for lodging, campaign supplies, and other materials.

Vigil’s spending seems to be paying off. Current polls show Vigil with a lead over Nakamura.

Nakamura spent as much as Vigil on her campaign, only a little over $11,000 this past filing period. Nakamura went the old-fashioned way using her campaigns contributions to pay for consistent campaigning. Her expenditures went toward campaign supplies, parade entries, lodging, and gas money.

Both candidate received a campaign contribution upwards of $177 thousand during the fourth primary filing period, while Vigil used a good amount of his portion, Nakamura has been more conservative with her spending.

The Importance of the Race

Judge Vigil said that the importance of this race lies in the Supreme Court’s power to affect the lives of New Mexicans.

“It’s the last chance to do the right thing for the people of the state of New Mexico and do the right thing for the people in that particular case,” Vigil said, “So it’s very very important who the people are, what their background is, how they do things, who sits on this court of last resort.”

Justice Nakamura said this is an important race to follow since “the core of our democracy are our laws that are interpreted by our court system.” The NM judiciary is also the 3rd and coequal branch of government who often is overlooked but has a substantial amount of power in the state according to Nakamura.

“It’s not necessarily the executive branch that has the veto power, in many respects it’s the judiciary,” Nakamura said, “The legislature can write the laws that can be signed by the governor but if they don’t pass constitutional muster, if they violate some other aspect of the law, it’s going to be the judiciary, the supreme court that strikes it down.”

Since the NM Supreme Court only consists of five justices, the opinion of each judge weighs heavy as only three out of five justices make the ruling on a case. Vigil said that because of this weight the justice must not only be mindful of the law but also mindful of the people their decision affects.

“Justice is not just about looking at something in black and white, and saying ‘well, it’s this or that’ but you gotta keep in mind, in your heart, that this is something that’s going to affect someone’s family, children, parties to a criminal case, the defendant, the victim, so it’s not just about laws it’s about lives,” Vigil said.

This is also the first time in state history that there is a majority of women justices on the bench. Four women, now five, including Nakamura have made up the NM Supreme Court over the years, with Mary Walters being the first in 1984.

“You have to have a court and you want your government leaders to be people who reflect the diversity of your community. That way it gives people more confidence that we understand the impact of our decisions,” Nakamura said. According to a there is now a majority of women in New Mexico, with about a 39,616 difference. “So it seems just fitting,” Nakamura said.

An Outside Opinion of the race

According to Antoinette Sedillo-Lopez, a former Professor Emeritus of Law at UNM School of Law and current Executive Director of Enlace Comunitario, the judges elected onto the Supreme Court is an important issue in due process of law in the judicial system and for the protection of civil rights.

“It is very important to have judges who understand the need to protect civil rights and to understand the impact of their decisions on the diverse peoples within the state,” Sedillo-Lopez said, “The court balances the three branches of government and ensures that the administrative branch and the legislative branch comply with the Constitution and laws. It also provides superintending control of all of the lower courts to ensure that they function properly and the Court enacts the procedural rules for all of the Courts in New Mexico.”

Sedillo-Lopez said that in New Mexico’s current social and economic state, judges and justices that are in office, is very important.

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