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The KUNM news team's coverage of the 2020 legislative session and its impacts

Voters Weigh Changes To How Court Decisions Are Appealed In N.M

Hannah Colton / KUNM

In Bernalillo County’s Metro Court, judges hear cases about drunk driving, domestic violence, drugs, traffic tickets, and small civil claims. It’s the busiest court in the state and the only one like it here. Here’s how it works: When someone wants to appeal a decision from Metro Court, they have to present the case again at District Court across the street and get an OK before it heads up to Appeals Court. This election, there’s a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would free lawmakers up to change this appeals system.

Resources are often spare for all parts the judicial system around the state, and people who have an eye on efficiency, are saying that sending each Metro Court appeal through District Court is an unnecessary step. They asked legislators last session to send the issue to voters. They did, and there hasn’t been much opposition.

Just to be clear, voters aren’t deciding whether to make this change in the appeals process in one go. Instead, they’re choosing whether to modify the New Mexico State Constitition to allow lawmakers to make the change if they think it’s a good move.

Artie Pepin, the director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, spoke with KUNM about what voters are deciding.

ARTIE PEPIN: So you appeal now a DWI or a domestic violence case out of Metro Court, it goes across the street to the District Court. The District Court considers the record. A party can then appeal that to the Court of Appeals. And even then, after that, to the Supreme Court.

KUNM: It can be kind of a three-step—or at least a two-step process.

ARTIE PEPIN: Yes, that’s exactly how it works.

KUNM: So what would it mean for lawyers and for the courts?

PEPIN: For lawyers that handle these cases—and again, in the Metropolitan Court, we’re talking about misdemeanors and civil cases under $10,000, not all of them have lawyers. And so, even in cases where a person is representing themselves, they’ll have a more direct avenue to take their case to the Court of Appeals. And after all, the Court of Appeals exists to handle appeals and apply the correct appellate standard and things like that.

Whereas the trial court, District Court, where these appeals go now, is busy doing trials and ruling on evidence, and they have to kind of take time out from their regular work to do these appeals. And if the Legislature has the authority, we’ll ask them to let the District Court do the trial work, and let the Court of Appeals handle the appeals. That’s what they’re there for.

KUNM: Is there any downside to this, to removing that one step? Is it, I don’t know, less opportunity for people to make their case? Is there any feedback that you’ve heard that you’ve had to consider?

PEPIN: Nobody’s brought up a downside that has caused anybody some concern. This did go through obviously the Legislature last year. We had the hearings on it and votes and everything. In the entire legislative process, there was one no vote. All the other votes were in favor of it, because it’s logical and sensible.

If a lawyer was handling this case, they get an extra appeal. So they get paid more. But we haven’t had any lawyers tell us that’s a reason not to do it. So, it’s hard to see a reason why just giving the Legislature the authority to do something that makes sense is a bad idea.

KUNM: You’re saying there was one no vote. That was state Sen. Cliff Pirtle. He said that he thought this amendment was a statewide solution to a Bernalillo County problem.

PEPIN: First of all, you can’t solve the problem without changing the Constitution. The Constitution applies to all of our courts. The Legislature could at some point decide to change the way other courts work. So they would have the same kind of conflict, and you’d want their appeals to go directly to the Court of Appeals as well.

It is true, Sen. Pirtle’s correct, the only place that we have misdemeanor courts of record for domestic violence and DWI and civil cases, is here in Albuquerque now. But Las Cruces is growing, other towns are growing, and the Legislature could—whenever they wanted to—make those other courts courts of record, and then you’d have the same problem.

KUNM: What about overloading the appellate court? Is that an issue?

PEPIN: We looked at how often this happens, these cases go to the District Court. It would represent about 5 percent, maybe, increase. And that’s in a heavy year in the Court of Appeals. And we’re confident they can handle it.

We have to convince the Legislature about that. You know, they’re going to ask us: Is it going to cost more money? Are we going to need another judge? And if they’re not convinced, they won’t pass a change to the statute, or the governor won’t sign it. It’s just to give the authority to the Legislature to do something that everybody we’ve talked to is convinced makes a lot of sense.

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