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Court candidates campaign within constraints

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With contested races for governor, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives and a raft of statewide and local offices lending themselves to crowded 2018 primary and general elections ballots, New Mexicans could be forgiven for losing track of all the candidates now asking for their votes.

That’s especially the case with candidates for seats on the New Mexico Court of Appeals. As judges or would-be judges, those seeking spots on the court — even though they’re participating in partisan races — are restricted for obvious ethical reasons from campaigning in the way hopefuls for other offices do. They have to be careful not to express opinions on sensitive issues that might come before the court, and can’t make “campaign promises” — other than promising to apply the law impartially.

I told the three candidates who recently visited the Roswell Daily Record office — Hank Bohnhoff, Emil Kiehne and Daniel Gallegos, all incumbent Republicans — that it sounds like a less-than-exciting electoral process, especially compared to the rough and tumble spectacles that play out as other offices are decided.

But that’s the nature of the beast in a system that requires those who want to be impartial arbiters of justice to participate in partisan political contests.

“We have to run based on a party affiliation — we will all be running as Republicans — and that creates the real wrinkle …” Bohnhoff said. “We don’t make decisions based upon whether the parties are Democrats or Republicans, we treat everybody the same, but yet we have to run on the basis of a party affiliation.”

All three feel the partisan process creates a challenge when it comes to campaigning.

“There is an awkwardness in the fact that our races are partisan, and we have to go out and try to contact the voters, meet them, shake their hands, introduce ourselves,” Bohnhoff said. “Because inevitably, we are asked questions about, ‘what is your position on immigration’ or whatever, and we have to say, ‘I’m sorry, but we can’t talk about that because our judicial ethics prohibit it.’ And that frustrates the voters and the voters are asking themselves, ‘Well, why are you running? Why are you in an election if we can’t talk to you about your positions?’ And that’s just the fundamental tension of the system that we’re in.”

Imagine a “debate” between candidates, given the ground rules:

Candidate A: I believe in applying the law impartially.

Candidate B: So do I.

Candidate A: I’ll hear all arguments with an open mind.

Candidate B: Well, me too.

Not exactly Clinton v. Trump — which is not a bad thing, especially where judges making potentially far-reaching and precedent-setting legal decisions are concerned.

So how do they run for office? Statewide campaigning to build recognition with a focus on qualifications.

Judges are initially appointed by the governor, but then must run for their seats in the next general election. Bohnhoff, Kiehne and Gallegos were appointed to the 10-judge court over the past 15 months or so, during a period that saw a rash of retirements lead to vacancies. In the general election, Bohnhoff will face Democrat Jacqueline Medina, Kiehne will face Democrat Briana H. Zamora, and Gallegos will face Democrat Megan Duffy. None have primary challengers.

There are also two other Court of Appeals positions on the general election ballot: Democrat Kristina Bogardus faces Republican incumbent Stephen French, while incumbent Democrat Jennifer Attrep is unopposed.

In the meantime, that imagined Candidate A/Candidate B debate won’t be taking place, perhaps leaving the only debate one that’ll have to be decided some other day: whether judges should be chosen in partisan elections. While one gets the feeling the judges themselves would vote “no” — if for no other reason than that campaigning awkwardness mentioned above — when asked directly they stressed that the partisan nature of their election process doesn’t translate into feeling political pressure on the bench.

“The idea behind how we approach judging is consistent, and that is to put those blinders on, read the facts, read the law, evenly apply that law in the way that it’s supposed to be applied …” Gallegos said. “… The logic has to be there. The law has to be there.”

John Dilmore is editor of the Roswell Daily Record. He can be reached at editor@rdrnews.com.