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New Mexico Lawyers Serving New Mexico's Legal Needs Since 1997

Constitutional Collision and Potential Conflict of Interest Faces New Mexico’s Supreme Court Justices

A lawsuit filed directly before the New Mexico Supreme Court on April 16, 2014 presents the state’s highest court with two difficult conflicts to resolve. Or perhaps they can only resolve one of the conflicts.  A group which includes eight judges across the state, organizations representing magistrates and district judges as well as two state senators ostensibly representing the prerogatives of the State Legislature, is asking that Court to rule that the eight percent raises in salary for judicial officers - including the very justices which would rule on the case - appropriated by lawmakers this year be upheld in the face of the Governor’s line-item veto of such specific appropriation. The case sets the stage for a debate concerning two thorny issues and the decision on one issue could precipitate an even thornier problem for deciding the second one.

First, the Justices will have to decide whether they can even address the issue. Judges have ethical duties to avoid not only a conflict of interest but even the appearance of such a conflict. Concern over the integrity of the judicial system warrants judges recuse themselves from any cases in which they have any personal interest. It is expected that those opposing this lawsuit will argue that the justices cannot rule on the case because they possess a financial stake in its outcome. But, if we assume the justices agree with that argument and recuse themselves, then who will be left to render a ruling on the matter?.

The parties filing the suit claim only the Legislature can set the salaries of these individuals not the Governor. Several sections of Article VI of New Mexico’s Constitution state that the salaries of particular types of judges are “to be fixed by law.” Do these constitutional provisions confer the authority to set such salaries strictly on the legislature of the state?  Or does Article IV, Section 22 which gives the governor the authority “to approve or disapprove any part or parts, item or items, of any bill appropriating money,” render the Governor’s line-item veto of the salary increase consistent with the State Constitution?

If the Justices do find that they can rule on the matter, they then will be tasked with the contentious issue of whether the line-item veto powers of the Governor apply to judicial salaries. Should they then resolve the matter in favor or the Legislature’s authority, they can be certain to incur criticism of the decision by those who would view such as an unfair setting of their own salaries – even if they did not want to face this dilemma.

The attorneys at Giddens, Gatton & Jacobus, P.C. represent individuals in personal injury suits, business litigation and in cases of elderly and health care law in New Mexico. The firm represents businesses and individuals in post-judgment collection matters.  Giddens, Gatton & Jacobus, P.C. is located at 10400 Academy Road N.E., Suite 350 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Call the office at (505) 633-6298 to set up an appointment or visit the firm’s website at giddenslaw.com.

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