Come Nov. 7, chances are you’ll see some names on the ballot that you won’t recognize. But if the New Mexico Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission (NMJPEC) has its way, you’ll be well-informed when it comes to judges.
NMJPEC’s job is to evaluate judges’ and justices’ performances between election cycles, then make recommendations to the public whether to keep or get rid of them. This go-around, one New Mexico Supreme Court Justice, Edward L. Chavez, is up for re-election; there are also three Court of Appeals judges and 12 Metropolitan Court judges in Bernalillo County whose names will be on the ballot.
Considering the sizable number of judges here, it’s a little surprising to see NMJPEC recommending to keep all 16.
“Halfway through the term, we tell judges if there are any weaknesses,” says Felix Briones, Jr., chair of NMJPEC, which the state’s Supreme Court established in 1997 as a means of monitoring itself. NMJPEC evaluates judges via written surveys and in-person court visits (notably, judges now recognize many commission members, so they have independent observers sit in on court sessions). Judges who aren’t living up to expectations may, for example, be encouraged to take specific courses pertinent to their job. Hopefully, they’ll have improved enough to warrant NMJPEC’s recommendation by election time.
Not only does the commission advise judges and justices—it also informs the public about this little-understood branch of government. Educating the public about the judiciary, Briones suggests, is an ongoing challenge.
“One of the members of the commission,” which Briones says is nonpartisan, “told me yesterday he heard that 53 percent of people could name three of the seven dwarves [from Snow White], but couldn’t name one U.S. Supreme Court justice.”
This is a nationwide phenomenon, Briones says. Over the past couple decades, somewhere between 20 and 25 states have established commissions similar to NMJPEC to combat the problems of an under-informed populace, as well as the dilemma of under-performing judges.
To get the word out, the NMJPEC is taking out radio and print ads, while encouraging state residents to check out their website, www.nmjpec.org. Not only does the site detail what’s at stake this term, but it also offers info on past recommendations, both from the 2004 and 2002 elections. Do your civic duty and give it a look.