SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico established public campaign financing for statewide judicial races five years ago, but a glitch in the law didn’t allow candidates for the state Supreme Court in the November general election to qualify for the program that was supposed to protect judges from potential conflicts of interests from traditional political fundraising.
The Democratic and Republican candidates for a seat on New Mexico’s highest court report have collected about $161,000 for their campaigns so far, according to the latest finance reports filed by their campaigns.
Newly appointed Justice Paul Kennedy, a Republican, and Democratic candidate Barbara Vigil say they would have opted for public financing had it been available. The candidates couldn’t seek public financing because a vacancy on the court, which prompted the race, occurred after the primary election.
“It’s pretty difficult to raise money for judicial races. I think the intent behind the Legislature was that it’s a bit unseemly for judges to be out raising money,” Kennedy said in a recent interview.
Vigil, the chief judge in the 1st Judicial District, said public financing “would simply enable the judicial candidate to run on his or her qualifications” without having to focus on fundraising.
Judicial ethical standards, they said, require candidates to separate themselves from their campaign fundraising operations. The goal is to help eliminate possible conflicts of interest that could happen if a campaign donor, such as a lawyer or a business, becomes part of a lawsuit that later comes before the judge.
“There’s nothing magic about it,” said Kennedy. “We’re not allowed to ask for money directly and we’re not to know who is contributing and what they are contributing. So what you try to do is … insulate yourself from that with your campaign people.”
The state enacted a law in 2007 to provide public money for campaigns for Supreme Court and state Court of Appeals races. However, the law wasn’t written to cover the possibility of an appellate court race developing after the primary election although that happened in 2002 and 1996 with Supreme Court positions.
The law requires candidates to collect a certain number of small contributions to become eligible for public financing. Democratic and Republican candidates must do that by late March of the election year.
However, there was no Supreme Court position to be decided in a partisan election this year until Justice Patricio Serna announced in mid-June that he would retire later in the summer. He served until late August. Serna’s departure set into motion a complicated procedure for temporarily filling the vacancy and electing someone to the court to serve the remainder of his term through 2016.
Republican Gov. Susana Martinez appointed Kennedy in September from candidates suggested by a bipartisan nominating commission. An appointed judge, who wishes to keep the job, is required to run in a partisan election in the next general election and the winner then faces periodic nonpartisan retention elections.
Because the Supreme Court vacancy occurred too late to have the nominations decided in the primary election, political parties selected their nominees to run in the November general election — Kennedy and Vigil.
Viki Harrison, executive director of Common Cause in New Mexico, said Friday the group will explore possible fixes to the judicial public financing system during next year’s Legislature.
“Especially for a Supreme Court justice, you don’t want them to be beholden to anybody,” said Harrison.
A candidate could have received about $179,600 in public financing in the general election had the system been available in the Supreme Court race, according to the secretary of state’s office.
Vigil has raised $100,143 for her campaign and Kennedy has collected $61,356 through the end of October, according to finance reports filed by the candidates. Contributions from lawyers and a political committee of the New Mexico Trial Lawyers Association account for about three-fourths of the money collected by Vigil’s campaign and a fifth of Kennedy’s campaign fundraising.
Vigil has spent $78,890 on her campaign compared to $45,143 by Kennedy.