SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico’s highest court ruled Wednesday that judges across the state are entitled to a 5 percent pay raise because Gov. Susana Martinez didn’t eliminate money for it with a veto.
The state Supreme Court issued the unanimous decision after hearing arguments from lawyers in a dispute over the governor’s power to veto spending items approved by the Legislature.
The governor’s lawyer, Jessica Hernandez, told reporters that the ruling could lead to more special legislative sessions by making it harder for the governor and lawmakers to agree on budget issues.
“The court seems to have looked for a way to split the baby, and unfortunately, in order to do that they had to read the words 5 percent into the budget even though they are not there,” Hernandez said at a news conference after the ruling.
Ray Vargas, a lawyer for judges and two Democratic lawmakers who challenged the governor’s veto, said it was a good decision, although “obviously it wasn’t everything we asked for.”
He had argued that judges should receive an 8 percent raise.
“The court here reiterated the fact that there are limits on the governor’s partial veto powers, and the separation of powers between the Legislature and the governor’s office must be maintained,” Vargas said.
It was an unusual dispute for the court to referee because the outcome affects the five state Supreme Court justices as well as 190 other judges — those on the Court of Appeals and the district, metropolitan and magistrate courts.
Four members of the high court stepped aside and were replaced by four retired judges, who no longer receive salaries. Justice Richard Bosson oversaw the case and announced the unanimous decision for the 5 percent raise.
The Legislature earlier this year approved two budget provisions that together would have provided judges an 8 percent pay increase in the fiscal year starting in July.
Martinez vetoed one section that spelled out the higher salary levels for judges. By law, judicial salaries are a percentage of the pay for a Supreme Court justice. The governor eliminated the provision that would have set a justice’s annual salary at $134,922 — an increase of 8 percent.
That provision also contained some money to cover judicial pay raises. The court said the veto of that appropriation was proper.
However, the rest of the money — an amount equal to a 5 percent raise — was in another budget provision that allocated funds for salaries and benefits of all court system workers.
“We saw this as one attempt to give judges a raise of 8 percent and that one attempt was vetoed,” Hernandez told reporters.
She said there wasn’t any language in the budget explicitly authorizing a 5 percent raise.
But Vargas argued to the court that Martinez was required to veto both budget provisions to eliminate the 8 percent raise.
The court decided that Martinez wiped out only part of the raise and judges are entitled to a 5 percent raise.
In announcing the court’s decision, Bosson said it “can be reasonably assumed that the Legislature wanted to make it more difficult, more challenging for the governor” to veto the 5 percent raise by including money for it in a larger pool of funds.
He said that wasn’t illegal but “we caution the Legislature in how they use this particular mechanism” in the future for salary increases.
District judges currently earn $112,747 a year. A Supreme Court justice is paid $124,927, and the chief justice receives $126,927.