In the first interim meeting of the year for the New Mexico Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee on Monday, lawmakers expressed a need for more regular contact between the Legislature and state courts so repetitive legal issues can be solved.
When courts make decisions, justices sometimes pinpoint issues they want policymakers to consider during legislative sessions, Sen. Antonio Maestas (D-Albuquerque) said. The issue, he expressed, is that those points aren’t often brought directly to lawmakers.
“Every now and then, the court will put in the last paragraph that the Legislature should look at this,” Maestas, a lawyer himself, said. “We really need to institutionalize that.”
Indeed, Sen. Joseph Cervantes (D-Las Cruces), chair of the committee and an attorney, said there’s no process internally for legislative staff to direct recommendations from the courts to lawmakers.
He asked New Mexico Supreme Court Justice David Thomson to give a presentation to lawmakers on how the courts work, which Thomson did on Monday. “You might be surprised that we don’t have anybody who looks at what you’re writing,” Cervantes said.
“We don’t even have a process where anybody on our staff is charged with looking at opinions from the court,” he said.
Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez (D-Albuquerque) said former Justice Richard Bosson’s call for the end of life sentences for juveniles took more than 15 years to come to fruition. Lawmakers passed the proposal ending the sentencing practice during the 2023 legislative session, and it was signed into law March 17 by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
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That’s a long time from Bosson’s request to policymakers actually passing the measure.
“I wish there was a way for the law clerks or somebody to highlight to the Legislature when there’s a call from the Judiciary,” Sedillo Lopez said.
Thomson agreed that it would be nice to have regular communication between the court and staff from the Legislature, such as the Legislative Counsel Service, directly on court opinions.
“There’s so many things that go on between the executive, legislative and judicial, in which we need to have a constant communication in order for the entire government to be effective,” he said.
Thomson said there should be enough communication for policymakers to decide what statutes are overlapping and need to be fixed through lawmaking.
“The concept of judicial activism would be us amending that statute to make it make policy sense, and we’re not going to do that,” Thomson said.
Maestas said there should be a way to have five or six bills a year that codify or fix things that keep coming up in the courts.
He said this is different from lobbying, where there’s an ethics line not to cross.
“You’re not lobbying a policy,” Maestas said. “You’re giving us a heads up that you’re seeing the same statute across your desk over and over, and we should fix that statute.”
Cervantes said communication needs to improve during the interim, the time when lawmakers are not in Santa Fe.
He talked about a past legal water case that debated how to interpret a bill that lawmakers passed. He said the case bounced between different state courts, costing New Mexico millions of dollars and took nearly a decade to wrap up.
Despite that, he said, nobody ever directly asked the lawmakers what they meant with the bill.
“We should, during our interim, find a way to look at opinions from the court where the court is telling us, ‘We don’t understand what you guys are talking about here, and we need some clarification,’” he said.
Talking about things to consider next session
Lawmakers got a head start on improving discussions by talking about some court-related matters that could be brought up in the 2024 30-day session.
Maestas asked if lawmakers should consider any court restructuring that judicial officials want to do during the next legislative session. He said Justice Judith Nakamura, at the end of her tenure as chief in 2020, had various bills that would restructure the judiciary.
Thomson said Nakamura wanted to consolidate courts together, but there’s no proposal from the judiciary to do that currently. He said that’s probably up to the lawmakers to do.
However, he told legislators, there are very complex criminal and civil matters happening at the magistrate courts. Nakamura wanted to combine other court matters into the magistrate.
He added that Chief Justice Shannon Bacon is restructuring how water courts work so that each district has its own judge, another complex area of law.
He said it’s important that lawmakers understand the data and disparities of different districts so they can accurately assess and potentially change how the court systems work in different places.
“I think there should be an ongoing conversation about this,” he said.
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This story was updated on Tuesday, June 6 at 9:00 a.m. to correct the spelling of Justice David Thomson’s name.