The 2016 election is just around the corner, less than four weeks away. Republican Supreme Court Justice Judith Nakamura is running to keep her seat on the bench. Democrat Chief New Mexico Appeals Court Judge Michael Vigil is challenging her. The candidates sat down for a conversation as part of KUNM’s special election coverage with New Mexico PBS.
There is a female majority on New Mexico’s highest court and Gwyneth Doland asked Nakamura whether this diversity is important.
NAKAMURA: Diversity is always important. It’s important that you have people in government on your courts that reflect your community. Certainly if you’re a reflection of your community, people will believe that you understand the impact of your decisions on them. It’s been special to be a part of the first female majority.
Throughout the state, as I travel, I’ve grandmas and moms saying, 'You can be like her, you can go to the court.' And we take pictures together and they post them. So, yeah it’s been special for me to be a part of the first female majority.
KNME: Judge Vigil is there something else that would contribute to your leadership on the court?
VIGIL: Part of my campaign is premised on the idea that, 'quiero ser el juez de la plebe.' I wish to be the judge of the people on the Supreme Court of the state of New Mexico. I bring a heart to the decisions that I make, premised on the fact that I have gone to court with people sitting next to me that their lives depend on what I do for them as an attorney. And, now that I have been an appellate court judge for this period of time, I know that a decision you make may affect the children, the spouse, the families, and the not just the parties. We’re making decisions that have precedence for all of the state of New Mexico. So as a consequence of that, one of the things I’ve said is, justice is not only about laws, it’s about lives.
KNME: I want to ask you each questions that are related to your most recent evaluations by the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission. Judge Vigil, in 2012, your lowest marks in that evaluation were from appellate judges. Twenty-three percent of them said you weren’t always fair and impartial. Should voters who don’t share your political views worry that you won’t be fair?
VIGIL: I attribute that to familiarity breeds contempt kind of thing. So once you’ve been together for many, many years, you have issues that arise where different judges express different opinions in different cases and in different ways. The lowest score was still a very, very high score that I received. The highest ratings I received were from practicing attorneys all over the state of New Mexico.
KNME: These evaluations aren’t quite comparable, because the jobs were different, and they asked different people these things. Justice Nakamura, you’re most recent one was in 2010, and your lowest marks were for respect of court employees. How would you improve those relationships?
NAKAMURA: Oh gosh, I think I have terrific relationships with the employees. I spent 11 years making some really difficult managerial decisions for the court. We had to reduce hours, reduce some of the perks the employees enjoyed in order to meet budget. When you’re running a court for 11 years, there are some folks who might not be pleased with all the decisions you make. But, quite frankly, for 11 years, four consecutive terms in a row, my colleagues asked that I continue to serve in that position. They elected me to serve in that position. But you know, any time you see marks that you wish were higher you step back, evaluate, and say what can I do differently? And I did that, as well. As a result, I have established really good relationships with employees and judges throughout the state of New Mexico.
Watch the full conversation on New Mexico PBS Friday Oct. 14 at 7 p.m. on New Mexico In Focus.