Workers Compensation Judge Victor Lopez’s high disqualification rate should be a matter taken into consideration when deciding whether he should be elevated to a higher bench.
I have practiced law for almost 24 years in New Mexico, and I know both candidates for the New Mexico Court of Appeals personally – District Judge M. Monica Zamora and Workers Compensation Judge Victor Lopez. In the upcoming election for the New Mexico Court of Appeals, it is critical for voters to evaluate which candidate in the June 5 Democratic Primary possesses the qualities most important for the judiciary – that of impartiality.
Any litigant at the trial level has the right to disqualify a judge assigned to hear the case, and have a different judge take over. In other words, if a litigant or his or her lawyer does not want the assigned judge to hear the case, for any reason, that judge is “excused.” A significant part of the evaluation process in considering a judge’s abilities is an analysis of the number times parties disqualify that judge.
An unusually high rate of disqualifications or “excusals” suggests that a certain Judge is not perceived by the parties as appropriate to hear the case. It may also be the result of a perception that the judge is not qualified.
A comparison of the disqualification rates for each candidate shows the overwhelming contrast between them. Workers Compensation Judge Victor Lopez had an unheard-of 100 percent disqualification rate in 2011 – that is, litigants assigned to Victor Lopez asked almost every single time that he not preside over their cases.
This disqualification rate was apparently no aberration. The prior year (2010) Lopez’s disqualification rate was 95 percent. In the years he has been a judge at the Workers Compensation Administration, Victor Lopez has had highest number of case disqualifications of any judge on that bench and has carried an average caseload that is one-fourth of any other Worker’s Compensation.
By contrast, Judge M. Monica Zamora was not disqualified from hearing any of the cases initially assigned to her in 2007. In 2011 her disqualification rate remained at 2 percent. She has carried her share of the caseload in her court.
Judge Zamora is perceived as a great judge
I don’t know why New Mexico’s workers, employers, insurers and lawyers in the Worker’s Compensation system collectively refuse to allow Judge Lopez to hear their cases, but it should be a matter taken into consideration when deciding whether he should be elevated to a higher bench. I believe in the vetting process done by the bipartisan Judicial Nominating Commission.
Judge Zamora is the only Democratic candidate that the commission found qualified for the New Mexico Court of Appeals position. The available public data of those judging the judges shows that she is fair, impartial and decides each case based upon a just application of the law. She is clearly perceived as a great judge based upon the review process.
There is no “disqualification” provision for Court of Appeals Judges – you just get whoever is assigned to your case. Before casting a vote for one the candidates for Court of Appeals, the people of New Mexico should consider the disqualification rates between the candidates and what the review commissions, the nominating commissions have said about them.
A graduate of the University of New Mexico School of Law, Michael Hart has been a partner in the Albuquerque law firm of Martinez Hart & Thompson since 1990. Mike has focused his work on helping children, families and victims of abuse. He is a campaign volunteer who supports Judge Zamora.