So you want to be a justice?
On August 25, the New Mexico Democratic Party’s State Central Committee will select a candidate for a vacant Supreme Court seat to replace retiring Justice Patricio Serna. The candidate DPNM picks will appear on the November ballot opposite whomever Governor Martinez appoints to fill the vacancy. Republican Paul Kennedy and Democrat Steven Suttle have been recommended by an independent judicial commission to the governor to fill the seat until the election.
ProgressNow New Mexico interviewed all five candidates who have declared their intent to run for the DPNM ballot slot.
We put these questions directly to the candidates, not their campaigns. Questions were asked by phone and the responses were transcribed here.
1) What is it that you could say to sway the State Central Committee to select you as the Democratic Party’s nominee? Although several of the candidates have a really good depth of community service, and others of them are very intellectually academically capable, I have a better overall complete package to take to the voters in November. Not only because I have more experience than anybody dealing with people’s individual rights and minority rights–which matters all across the state, it’s not just certain areas, it’s not just tribal rights or African American rights, but seniors, gays and lesbians, anybody who has had to deal with unfair unequal treatment is somebody I have worked for my entire legal career, and even before that. The bottom line is that not only do I think I appeal to a wider group of people, socio-economically and in other ways, but Obama is pinning his campaign hopes on the work and votes of women, and the bottom line is his success depends on women, and I think that a woman will benefit from that. With me you have the opportunity to have a woman and a still have a good political package and a good academic package, and that links me with the one to beat the Republican candidate. If you can’t beat the Republican you’ll end up with a Republican on the Supreme Court. I appeal to a wide enough range of people, I have all the credentials, I have all the political party service and community service — and I can raise money. I have the reputation as a fundraiser for major races throughout the state. So all in all it’s a good package–it’s the package that will beat the Republican.
2) No Republican has won election to the Supreme Court since 1980. What do you see happening to the Court if it were to change under this Republican Governor? That depends entirely on who the Republican is and how they got there. Not all Democrats are alike-which is why I’m running, and not all Republicans are alike either. I think that the difficulty for us is that a Republican who has been selected and endorsed and supported financially by the Governor, that Republican is more likely to be a person who espouses the ideals and the attitudes of the current Governor, then that has potential negative ramifications to those of us who do not particularly like the Governor’s connection to secret emails and other issues, I’m just not sure that that is something that a Supreme Court Justice should be tied into.
3) What two elements in your background give you a better understanding than most of New Mexico’s law and people? I have had what is probably the broadest practice of any of the candidates. I have prosecuted and defended criminal cases, argued a death penalty case in the early 1980s; but primarily my work has been the in the civil area. I have worked for decades in Tribal law, in such varied areas as environmental, tax, and economic development work. I have had such great interactions with various and different people in communities throughout the state, and have worked with women’s groups since the 60s. I have worked with more of the various minorities in New Mexico, different classes of people, different interest groups, than any of the other candidates.
4) You’re not an elected judge. What do you say to critics who suggest that you are not fully qualified to be nominated to sit on the New Mexico Supreme Court? Well that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. The role of a Supreme Court Justice is totally different from a trial judge. They don’t weigh facts as trial judges do. Lower Court judges deal with attorneys, evidence cross-examinations and witnesses. The Supreme Court Justices read briefs and then they make decisions and then write them. It’s a much more academic. There’s no requirement that you need to be a sitting court judge before you become a Supreme Court judge. And frankly the way some of our lower court judges have been falling like flies under ethical and legal challenges, it may be just as well to draw from another source.
1) What is it that you could say to sway the State Central Committee to select you as the Democratic Party’s nominee? Out of all the candidates I am the only one who has the specific experience to serve on the New Mexico Supreme Court. I spent 2 years as an attorney at the beginning of my career working at the Supreme Court as a judicial law clerk for Justice Baca, where I listened to oral arguments and drafted briefs and participated in the court functions. So I know exactly what the work serving on the Supreme Court entails. I’m familiar with it and could start that job on Day One. Of all the 5 candidates I am the most electable. I have the education and the background and experience.
I have the wherewithal to run a strong campaign. I have been running this strong statewide campaign. The campaign I am running is modern, strong, professional and statewide. I will add to the energy of the existing Democratic ticket. I will continue to work hard from now until I am sworn in as a new Supreme Court Justice, and I will be able to spend the rest of my career serving on the court.
2) No Republican has won election to the Supreme Court since 1980. What do you see happening to the Court if it were to change under this Republican Governor? Electing a Republican to the Supreme Court will change the existing dynamics of the court and will bring in the inability to cooperate with the existing members of the court. The political climate of New Mexico has been one of such strife, particularly in the judiciary, that having a Republican serve on the New Mexico Supreme Court would make the court and its decisions highly politicized. It’s going to be a struggle over political perspectives with the new Justice particularly a Republican who’s going to be very partisan and active in the Republican party, with close ties to the Republican administration.
3) What two elements in your background give you a better understanding than most of New Mexico’s law and people? My directly related legal experience began as a judicial law clerk for Justice Baca at the New Mexico Supreme Court, the briefs, the oral arguments, and the public policy implications for the state. So I have the direct familiarity and experience of what a Supreme Court Justice does. I also have legal healthcare specialization wh
ich I think will be very timely in the next few years. I am a lifelong resident of New Mexico. I’ve lived in Gallup, Taos, Albuquerque and other smaller communities. I’m very familiar with the lives of every day New Mexicans. We come from a hard-working family with very humble roots. My father was a high school teacher and my mom retired from the union and before that was a secretary and worked as a machinist. I lived in a trailer park in Gallup, and I understand the day to day struggles of New Mexico citizens. So I come with that perspective.
4) You’re not an elected judge. What do you say to critics who suggest that you are not fully qualified to be nominated to sit on the New Mexico Supreme Court? I would encourage people to look at the makeup of the current Supreme Court and those who serve who had never been a judge. I have perspective and objectivity from my years working for the New Mexico Supreme Court. I am very concerned about the lack of confidence with the judiciary. There is a major benefit being an attorney coming out of private practice, in that I have the objectivity to look at the judicial systems that are in place, and the conduct of judges at the lower level courts.
1) What is it that you could say to sway the State Central Committee to select you as the Democratic Party’s nominee? I am the Democrats strongest choice for the Supreme Court. I am the only candidate with broad and extensive judicial experience. As a Children’s Court judge for 10 years I have been a leader in strong advocacy for children. I am the only candidate who is currently serving in an elected office. The Democrats need the strongest candidate to beat the Republican in November. With deep roots in New Mexico, my core values have always been to serve others in need.
2) No Republican has won election to the Supreme Court since 1980. What do you see happening to the Court if it were to change under this Republican Governor? As the final arbiter of the law, the office of Justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court is very important, and I trust the people of New Mexico will select the strongest and most qualified individual to serve as a Justice on the New Mexico Supreme Court with honor and integrity.
3) What two elements in your background give you a better understanding than most of New Mexico’s law and people? My broad an extensive judicial experience and my deep roots in New Mexico, having been born, raised, and educated in New Mexico are the two factors which make me the strongest candidate for the Supreme Court.
4) Do you feel that it is important or necessary for a candidate for this position to have had experience as a judge? Clearly it’s not legally required, but the experience of being a judge would better serve the people of New Mexico. That experience is better to have than not to have when serving on the Supreme Court.
1) What is it that you could say to sway the State Central Committee to select you as the Democratic Party’s nominee? I have four decades of experience carrying the banner for my clients, and during all of those years I have viewed carrying the banner in the courtroom and advocating before the jury as the highest level of service that a lawyer can provide. I did that with honor and distinction in a number of different positions and I think at a high level. That accumulated experience and knowledge and skillset is essential to being an effective Justice. In addition to raw experience, the ability to negotiate, to write well, to persuade and to analyze, all of those are skills that I have mastered and I’m ready to offer my combined experience to the court. I am very electable, I run in competitive non-judicial races. I have raised substantial amounts of money to the extent that that is an essential ingredient. My name and my record are known across the state for my service. When the voters see John J. Kelly as the Democratic candidate for the New Mexico Supreme Court, people are going to say “I remember John, he was the U.S. Attorney. I remember John, he handled the Indian Gaming issue for the United States. I remember John, he helped resolved the Payday Lending issue.”
2) No Republican has won election to the Supreme Court since 1980. What do you see happening to the Court if it were to change under this Republican Governor? It’s hard to predict. It depends on who the Republican is who is elected. I think it’s going to change depending on how partisan and political that person may or may not be. It’s going to change depending on what that person’s practice background is and what his or her particular skills and interests are that come to the court.
3) What two elements in your background give you a better understanding than most of New Mexico’s law and people? I’ve been practicing under New Mexico law since 1977, longer than anyone. I have been a member of the bar, practicing in the state full time for 35 years. The only year I did not practice law was the year I ran for Congress. I have been blessed to have opportunities to work all over the state. My very first case was representing elderly Navajos in a remote area of San Juan County on the Navajo reservation. It was an environmental case where the burial sites of the families’ ancestors were threatened by a coal strip mine. I have represented the Attorney General of the United States on the Mexico-New Mexico border: immigration issues, narcotics issues and gun running. When I was 33 I was elected a County Commissioner in Sandoval County, the first Anglo to be elected from the east side of the county.
4) You’re not an elected judge. What do you say to critics who suggest that you are not fully qualified to be nominated to sit on the New Mexico Supreme Court? There’s a misconception in that question about what it takes to be a Supreme Court Justice. Our last Supreme Court Justice, Justice Daniels, he never held a judgeship. The same is true with Justice Ed Chavez who went onto the bench out of a practice of law. He was noted for his exceptional trial skills. The function of a trial judge is very, very different from that of a Supreme Court Justice.
1) What is it that you could say to sway the State Central Committee to select you as the Democratic Party’s nominee? I think there are several things that should be considered in deciding who to support for the Supreme Court. One has to do with making sure that you get the best possible and most experienced candidate for Supreme Court that you can, because you need somebody who understands the law and who has experience in a wide variety of areas as I do. You also want to make sure you elect someone who has through his actions demonstrated the ethics of his approach toward cases and
also toward the judicial office. Finally you need someone electable. I am the only candidate pursuing this office who has a demonstrated track record of having pursued public office at a state-wide level. You need someone with name ID. The disadvantage of this current process is that we’ve going to have the SCC meeting on August 25, and whoever comes out of that will have to start campaigning in September, and that puts everyone at a disadvantage except for me, because I have a record of having run for state-wide judicial office over the last year where I spent $100,000 on TV and radio ads throughout the state.
2) No Republican has won election to the Supreme Court since 1980. What do you see happening to the Court if it were to change under this Republican Governor? If the Governor selects a Republican Justice for the short term until the election, I think it’s really important for Democrats to select the best qualified and most electable candidate. However, if a Republican were elected, it’s one vote among five, but it would have an impact. It’s more than just the vote; it’s also the persuasive powers of the additional Justice that could have an impact on the direct of the court.
3) What two elements in your background give you a better understanding than most of New Mexico’s law and people? First there is my experience as an attorney who has represented people throughout New Mexico in a wide variety of issues ranging from divorce law to Worker’s Compensation law, to personal injury law and collections. It’s important that you have a generalist on the Supreme Court because that’s ultimately what they become and that’s the kind of thing they look at: a wide variety of issues and put it into the overall fabric of our law. Next, I was raised by my single mother. You learn something about life through such experiences. You learn our appreciation for being Democrats. My mother and her five children could not have made it without many of the social programs we have available.
4) You’re not an elected judge. What do you say to critics who suggest that you are not fully qualified to be nominated to sit on the New Mexico Supreme Court? When you compare my background with the other candidates, we have three candidates who are not judges, one who is a judge, then me. I am a judge. Under New Mexico law I am considered a full-fledged judge. We hold trials and we take testimony. There’s nothing negative about that. We currently have no Worker’s Compensation judge on the Supreme Court, and it’s important for the court to have a wide variety of experience.