A state statute requires magistrate judges in counties with more than 200,000 residents to be attorneys. Neither who filed for an open seat in Doña Ana County – which topped 200,000 in 2010 – is a lawyer. At least one plans to challenge the law.
This year’s magistrate judge race in Doña Ana County may be without any major-party candidates after Clerk Lynn Ellins disqualified both who filed because they aren’t attorneys.
Ellins did that because, as of the 2010 Census, the county’s population is over the 200,000 threshold that triggers a state law that requires magistrate judges to be attorneys.
At least one of the candidates plans to ask the N.M. Supreme Court to overrule the clerk’s decision and the law.
At issue is a longstanding debate in Doña Ana County about whether magistrate judges should have to be lawyers as the county’s population center, Las Cruces, grows. The situation raises questions not only about whether non-attorneys can run for the position this year, but about the future of the three current magistrate judges who aren’t lawyers.
No Republicans filed to run for the open seat on the court, but Democrats Paul A. Martinez and Keith E. LaMonica filed declarations of candidacy last week. Neither is a lawyer.
Martinez has hired an attorney and said he plans to file a writ of mandamus with the Supreme Court challenging the law.
“Legislative intent was never to make magistrate judges licensed attorneys. It was always the people’s court,” Martinez said.
Magistrate positions are normally up for election in the same years as the governor, but the November resignation of Democrat Olivia Nevarez Garcia created the Division 3 vacancy that’s on the ballot this year.
Though the filing day to run in the Democratic and Republican primaries has passed, that doesn’t mean there won’t be any candidates for the position on the November ballot if Ellins is successful in disqualifying the two Democrats. June 26 is the deadline for independent, minor-party and write-in candidates.
But if Ellins’ ruling stands, those candidates will have to be attorneys.
Martinez pushed metro court; Nuñez led opposition
Until recently, state law mandated the creation of a metro court – which would require judges to be attorneys – to replace magistrate and municipal courts when a county reached a population of 200,000. Only Bernalillo County was above that threshold.
For a decade prior to the 2010 Census, as Doña Ana County’s population approached 200,000, officials in the area began debating what to do. Gov. Susana Martinez, who was district attorney at the time, pushed the creation of a metro court system, saying all judges should be attorneys. Many Democrats opposed her efforts.
The reality is that much of Doña Ana County has become urban – Las Cruces is the state’s second largest city – but much of it remains quite rural.
The opposition to a metro court has been led in the Legislature by Rep. Andy Nuñez, a Democrat-turned-independent from Hatch, who says the law was not intended to require that a rural community like his be part of a metro court system.
Hatch is a rural farming community of about 1,700 people located some 40 miles from Las Cruces in far north Doña Ana County.
A bill Nuñez sponsored in 2010, which then-Gov. Bill Richardson signed, raised the population requirement for a metro court system from 200,000 to 250,000.
But a second statute, which required magistrate judges in counties with a population of 200,000 or more to be lawyers, remained. In 2011, the Legislature passed a second Nuñez bill that would have raised that requirement to 250,000. But Martinez, who was governor by then, pocket vetoed the bill.
So the threshold in that statute remains at 200,000. Doña Ana County’s official population in 2010 was 209,233.
AG agrees with clerk’s position
Letters Ellins sent to both candidates last week (here and here) inquiring about whether they were lawyers cite that statute. Ellins sent follow-up letters this week formally disqualifying both, telling them their names are not “qualified to be placed on the June 5, 2012 Primary Election Ballot as a Democrat Party candidate for the office of Magistrate.”
Ellins told NMPolitics.net he expects LaMonica to join Martinez in challenging his decision.
Kenneth Ortiz, the secretary of state’s chief of staff, said his office asked the attorney general for an opinion. Assistant Attorney General Tania Maestas “advised us that she agreed with the county’s position,” Ortiz said.
If Ellins is successful, Paul Martinez said he finds it unlikely that the magistrate race will draw lots of interest. He said there are only three lawyers who serve as magistrate judges in the state. One of them, Conrad Perea, serves in Doña Ana County.
What about the current judges?
There’s another issue to consider: If Ellins is right, would that mean the other three magistrate judges in Doña Ana County, who are not lawyers, are no longer qualified to serve? If so, would they have to resign immediately? Or would they simply not be eligible to seek re-election in 2014?
“I think this does need to be challenged, so it rests with the Supreme Court to decide whether the sitting magistrates can run for re-election, because they’re in limbo,” Martinez said.