As people in New Mexico look over their ballots, they might run into a whole mess of judges—often folks they don’t know anything about. The state’s Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission—or JPEC—was created to help. The commission interviews judges, watches them in court and sends around confidential surveys to their staff and to lawyers. KUNM spoke with JPEC's vice-chair, former District Court Judge James Hall, about how these reviews helped him when he was on the bench.
JAMES HALL: When you’re a judge, you don’t really get a lot of honest feedback. I mean, obviously the appellate courts review your decisions, so you get feedback on the legal decisions you make. But in terms of your performance in the courtroom, people generally are pretty hesitant to be critical to judges directly. This process helps identify, you know, areas where I thought maybe I wasn’t doing so well, turned out, people thought I was doing OK. And then other areas were areas that I hadn’t really thought were much of an issue, and they were ones that were identified as could be improved. So I found it really enlightening as to what folks thought of my performance.
KUNM: Voters, you know, they get into the voting booth. And I hear pretty often that they see a whole bunch of judges they never heard of on their ballot. And they don’t know them or whether they’re any good at their jobs necessarily. So why are judges elected positions in the first place?
JAMES HALL: Well that’s a decision that is in the New Mexico constitution. Most states, either judges are elected in partisan elections—Republican versus Democrat. Or, the other way that they are typically addressed in elections is through retention. Retention means that the judge’s name is simply put on the ballot and voters vote yes this judge should be retained, or no this judge shouldn’t be retained. Every other state in the country uses one or the other of those systems. In New Mexico, we use both.
We have a system where the first time a judge is up for an election, they run in a partisan election. JPEC is not involved in those. We don’t make any recommendations where a judge is running in a partisan election. But under our system in New Mexico, once a judge gets through the partisan election, then all subsequent elections for that judge are based on retention elections. And that’s the part of it that JPEC gets involved in.
KUNM: Does it ever get political? Do you ever worry or hear about situations where someone might decide they just want to take a judge out, so they’re going to organize people to give negative evaluations to JPEC, anything like that?
JAMES HALL: One, as far as JPEC is concerned, I’ve never seen political factors play any role in JPEC’s decision-making. JPEC is balanced, Republicans and Democrats, and in fact we don’t even know the political affiliation of a particular judge that we’re evaluating. Because that doesn’t appear on the ballot. It’s simply: Should they be retained? In our evaluation, the political affiliation of a judge plays no role. I can’t say I’m even aware of hearing rumors of any type of organized effort on a political basis to score a judge in a particular way.
KUNM: So how can voters make use of the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission? And why should they care about voting on judges?
JAMES HALL: I mean the entire role of JPEC is to try to get this information out to the voters. If you go ahead and put your ZIP code into the JPEC website, the website will show you the judges that will be on the ballot that you will see when you go into the voting booth and will include the recommendation. And if you click on the individual judge, then you can see the evaluation and the basis for JPEC’s recommendation as to any of those judges.
So the second part of your question is: Why is it important? Obviously judges make decisions that affect everyone’s lives. And the Metropolitan Court in Albuquerque—in terms of numbers of cases—is the busiest court in the state. The Metropolitan Court handles, essentially, misdemeanor type criminal offenses, but that also includes DWIs, it includes some domestic violence cases, and they also hear civil cases that involve matters less than $10,000. Those people probably have more contact with the citizens than any other court in New Mexico. And so it is important what the judges are like on that particular court, or any court in New Mexico, and I think that’s why people should care.