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 V.13 No.26 | June 24 - 30, 2004 

Payne's World

Lex Luthor's Legal System

Time to demand more accountability from the judiciary

Reforming the state's judicial system is a hot topic no matter where you turn these days. Whether certain state legislators, journalists, trial lawyers or judges of New Mexico choose to acknowledge it, the overwhelming majority of our residents suspect that something is rotten in Denmark or, in this case, something is screwy within the halls of justice. And it is.

While the felony arrest of one of our chief district court judges for DWI and cocaine possession served as the catalyst for the latest round of citizen ire, this isn't the first time New Mexicans have been inclined to storm the judicial citadels like peasants with pitchforks. The infamous McDonald's hot coffee case came out of our courts, as did the bizarro ruling holding people who leave their car at the mechanic's with keys inside responsible for any damage a thief might cause after he (or she) has stolen the vehicle.

Add to that the blatant manipulation of judicial procedure by defense attorneys that often results in the dismissal of DWI cases because they managed to run out the clock and the apparent inability of our judges to deal effectively with folks on their umpteenth DWI charge, and you're left with a legal system that looks like it was designed by Lex Luthor—or the New Mexico Trial Lawyers Association.

Anyone remotely familiar with the political environment of our state knows the kind of muscle the trial lawyers association has. Whether it's their ability to encourage or thwart new laws in the Legislature, raise campaign cash for candidates of their liking or provide political air cover when one of their own is challenged, this is the group many of our sitting judges have to thank for their jobs. The association is also the one group most committed to—and most responsible for—the sorry status quo in our courts.

Having said that, this isn't a big surprise. Trail lawyers want a certain environment and certain things from government just like any other special interest group. In this case, they want a judiciary that makes it easy to be a lawyer and one that caters to the "left of center" brand of law that pervades much of New Mexico. While this might be good for them and their members, it's often not good at all for the rest of the non-lawyers.

Since Judge Brennan's arrest, the resulting public furor (and, to a certain degree, Gov. Bill Richardson) has forced the New Mexico Supreme Court to finally—and perhaps for the first time—take its responsibility for the quality and integrity of the lower courts much more seriously.

Last Wednesday, the court came down with new guidelines that said judges may be required to submit to drug testing. It also temporarily closed the loophole that allowed DWI cases to be thrown out of court if their cases weren't prosecuted within six months.

Unfortunately, either one of these common sense measures could have (and should have) been enacted years ago. Why did it take the high profile arrest of one of their own and the governor asking the state Supreme Court to close a disturbing loophole in how DWI cases are prosecuted to get action?

This November's general election will place a number of judicial and legislative seats before the voters of New Mexico, including two seats out of five on the New Mexico Supreme Court. While there are a number of pressing issues before the state, given the public's lack of confidence in the judiciary, perhaps one of the most important questions for voters to ask is—what will we do?

While there are some very good judges in New Mexico, if we really want to bring substantive and positive reform to our courts, we need new blood. Voting for a trial lawyer-sponsored status quo will not result in real reform of our courts but rather more of the same. We must elect judges with a fresh perspective; one that recognizes that the judiciary is not the legislative branch of government and that our citizens should come before special interest groups like the trial lawyers.

Reform cannot be left up to the state Supreme Court, especially when it takes either an election year or a felony among one of their own to get them off the dime. Reform is also not something that should take place when it is politically expedient. This year, reform must take place in the voting booth and it starts with you, me and everyone else who demands more accountability from the judiciary!

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. Payne, a former city councilor, can be reached at greg@alibi.com.

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