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Candidate vying to maintain seat on NM Supreme Court

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Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

Six months ago Judge Gary Clingman was appointed by Gov. Susana Martinez to fill a vacancy on the New Mexico Supreme Court, and he hopes that this November, New Mexico voters will decide to keep him on the court.

Clingman, a Republican, was in Roswell for a meet-and-greet with supporters Tuesday at Pecos Flavors.

A Texas native, Clingman worked in the oil fields after high school before becoming a police officer. In 1984 he graduated with his law degree from Texas Tech.

He moved to Hobbs a year later where he worked in a private law firm. Then-Gov. Gary Johnson appointed him to the Fifth District Court in 1997, a district that consists of Chaves, Eddy and Lea counties.

Clingman said he also worked as a child abuse and neglect judge for seven years.

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When New Mexico Justice Eddie Chaves vacated his seat on the court, Clingman applied for the job. He said that he was having lunch at a restaurant in Santa Fe in March 2018 when Martinez offered him the appointment.

“I was extremely flattered and gratified, so I naturally accepted,” Clingman said.

New Mexico law requires that nominees apply for openings. Their credentials are then looked at, and the nominees are interviewed by the Judicial Nominating Commission.

A list of qualified nominees is then produced for the governor to choose from.

Clingman said he decided to apply for the vacancy partly because it seemed like the natural next step in his career. He added that he also thought the court needed someone who was not from Albuquerque or Santa Fe.

He said that when people ask him what he contributes to the court, he says diversity — geographic diversity.

Clingman said that a justice who is not either a product of Albuquerque or Santa Fe has not been on the New Mexico Supreme Court in nearly 25 years.

“Rural New Mexico needs somebody on the court looking at the effect of decisions, etcetera, through rural eyes,” he said.

Laws are and should be applied equally to all of New Mexico, but Clingman said it’s important to have people from different parts of the state on the court because the court’s rulings can sometimes have different effects on New Mexicans, depending on where they live.

One such case involved an appeals court decision a few years ago, that said New Mexicans could sue out-of-state medical providers in medical liability cases. The decision did not mean much to people in Santa Fe or Albuquerque who have ample access to medical care, but as a result of the decision, there began to be talk about states like Texas no longer accepting New Mexico patients — something that would have been bad for residents in more rural areas who depend on out-of-state providers.

“That’s just an example of how a case — an interpretation of the law — can really have an effect in Hobbs or Roswell; very different than it has in Albuquerque and Santa Fe,” Clingman said.

This November, races for governor, the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives will get the lion’s share of voter’s attention, but Clingman said his race is also very important.

Decisions handed down by the court, whether it be about utility rates, how a police officer treats a civilian or how a parent can discipline a child — are some of the issues decided by the court.

“The effect their decisions have reaches every corner of the state,” Clingman said.

Because matters taken up by lower courts could make their way up to the New Mexico Supreme Court, candidates for judicial posts cannot discuss how they feel about certain issues or cases. That makes a campaign to be a judge or justice different from other races on the ballot, and is something Clingman said can be irritating at times.

“If I say I am against ‘X’ and ‘X’ comes up, I can’t sit on that case. I have already told you how I am gonna rule. I’ve already made up my mind. I am the number one guy you don’t want on that,” he said.

Clingman describes the legal philosophy he adheres to as one of judicial restraint.

“In other words, the courts weren’t designed to be some sort of super legislature or super executive, they were designed to simply interpret and administer the law and examine the laws that are passed by the legislature who are the people,” he said.

Clingman said people often seem to forget that it is legislators, not judges, who are the voice of the people in government.

Clingman said that in the last six months, he has enjoyed his time on the court. He is struck by the professionalism of his fellow justices who he said take their duties seriously and think ahead to the effects their decisions will have.

“They are not result-oriented, in other words they do not decide who they want to win and they try to massage the law to support the decision,” he said.

He added that the atmosphere among the justices, even amidst widespread disagreements, is one where they get along.

“It’s nothing like you have been watching on this Kavanaugh thing on TV,” Clingman said in reference to the Senate hearings of President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee.

Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 301, or at breakingnews@rdrnews.com.