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Chief Justice touts court accessibility, warns of 'human cost' of pretrial detention

Chief Justice Shannon Bacon
Morgan Lee
/
AP
Supreme Court Chief Justice C. Shannon Bacon delivers a State of the Judiciary speech to a joint session of the New Mexico Legislature in Santa Fe, N.M., on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023.

New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice C. Shannon Bacon touted accessibility initiatives and called on lawmakers to weigh the fiscal and human impact of criminal justice reforms in her State of the Judiciary address to a joint session of the New Mexico legislature Tuesday. She also urged legislators to better fund the coequal branch of government.

The Chief Justice began her speech acknowledging her own humanity, admitting she’d accidentally worn mismatched shoes to the Roundhouse.

“So, for all of those people over the course of the last 24 hours who told me to break a leg, I know they meant it well,” she said to laughs in the chamber.

She went on to recognize the humanity of New Mexicans who interact with the court system, facing barriers getting to court, securing a lawyer or getting a fair shake.

She lauded the ways remote hearings during the pandemic created lasting accessibility to the courts, which she said otherwise may have taken decades to make happen.

“COVID became the fuel for something new,” she said. “And just as the phoenix rises from the ashes, the judiciary has risen to the administration of equal justice under law, rededicated to that principle.”

She announced the metropolitan and 8th Judicial District courts will pilot a remote jury selection process this month, and that “justice stations” are in the works, where rural New Mexicans without broadband access can attend court online.

Bacon also highlighted the equity work of the supreme court in establishing the New Mexico Commission on Mental Health and Competency to better meet the behavioral health needs of those who interact with the court system, and the Commission on Equity and Justice. 

“The commission’s goal is to give New Mexicans equitable access to the state’s justice system through training and education of judges and staff; conducting a review of case outcome data; creating a diverse pipeline to the judiciary; reviewing and reforming policies, procedures and jury instructions; and focusing on the courthouse experience for all litigants,” she said.

She also highlighted work to meet the needs of people without legal representation in a state with a number of “legal deserts,” like Harding and De Baca counties, which she said have no practicing lawyers.

She asked lawmakers to continue funding a statewide legal helpline for people of “modest means,” and touted the tens of thousands of people who accessed self-help centers at courts across the state.

“When people have access to legal resources, they are empowered with the knowledge about their full rights and the legal process, giving them access to the justice that they deserve,” she said.

A bill that would have kept more defendants behind bars awaiting trial failed in last year’s session. With lawmakers set to take up the issue again this year with the support of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Bacon also highlighted what she called the “human cost” of criminal justice reform.

While acknowledging that violent crime can create fear and sorrow, Bacon reminded lawmakers of the rights of people accused of crimes, and the traumatic impact of incarceration on those wrongfully accused, citing a 2019 case where a 17-year-old was misidentified and arrested for murder in Albuquerque.

“Balancing the rights of the accused but not yet convicted and the safety and security of the public is hard,” she said. “And it should be hard. We’re talking about competing constitutional rights.”

She told lawmakers that the reforms also have a high fiscal cost, calling not just for “adequate,” but “robust” funding to meet the demands of the justice system.

The Chief Justice concluded her address by calling on lawmakers to better fund the judicial branch and its partners, including public defenders, mental health providers, law enforcement and jails. She said she wants to see judicial staff paid as much as their executive branch peers, and for general fund dollars to replace court fees that help finance the judiciary.

“The elimination of fee funding is a national best practice, which promotes budget transparency and eliminates the unjust practice of paying for government functions on the backs of those who can least afford it," she said.

Bacon assured the joint session of the legislature that, with their help, the state’s judicial system will continue to evolve and adapt.

Nash Jones (they/them) is a general assignment reporter in the KUNM newsroom and the local host of NPR's All Things Considered (weekdays on KUNM, 5-7 p.m. MT). You can reach them at nashjones@kunm.org or on Twitter @nashjonesradio.
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