New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice Judith Nakamura
Supreme Court Chief Justice Judith Nakamura addressed a joint session of the Legislature Jan. 17 to outline plans for improving and streamlining court operations to better serve New Mexicans.
In her State of the Judiciary speech, the Chief Justice also appealed to lawmakers to support a constitutional amendment to extend the time for the partisan election of newly appointed judges, improve judicial salaries to help attract well-qualified attorneys as applicants for judgeships and fund key budget requests from the courts.
Plans for improving court operations are part of an initiative called “Advancing Judicial Excellence” that originated last spring at a meeting of chief judges, court executive officers and representatives of magistrate and municipal courts.
“This initiative, which will provide the framework for the judiciary’s strategic planning and budgets for the next three years is rooted in two simple questions,” the Chief Justice told lawmakers. “Are we doing our best work? And how can we do better?”
She identified three areas where the Judiciary can make immediate improvements:
- “We can simplify and streamline our organizational structure and improve case management;
- “We can expand our use of technology to improve efficiency, increase services, and reduce delay; and
- “We can improve the public’s access to – and information about – the courts.”
To help courts identify issues that need to be addressed, the Judiciary has contracted with the National Center for State Courts for a workload study of the district, metropolitan and magistrate courts.
“We hope to learn how we might streamline processes, improve efficiencies, reduce delay and identify where additional judges and staff are needed,” the Chief Justice said.
A grant from the State Justice Institute will pay for the first-ever evaluation of appellate court processes.
The Judiciary has proposed two measures to the Legislature to simplify the judiciary’s organizational structure by giving cities with populations over 1,500 an option of having their municipal court cases handled in magistrate courts and allowing counties to transfer jurisdiction over probate matters to the local magistrate or district court. If the legislation (Senate Bill 173 and Senate Joint Resolution 8) is enacted, such transfers would happen only if requested by the local government and approved by the Supreme Court.
“Why wouldn’t a community want the option to create a more efficient, less confusing court system? Let’s begin to build a better system with these good government proposals which are good for our citizens,” the Chief Justice told lawmakers in her prepared remarks.
Already underway by the Judiciary is a consolidation of administrative functions of magistrate and district courts within each of the state’s 13 judicial districts. This began last fall with a pilot program in the Twelfth Judicial District and has been expanded to the Sixth Judicial District. All districts will have completed the transition by the end of the current fiscal year.
“All district and magistrate court clerks will be comparably paid and cross-trained, allowing us to move staff where we have shortages, thereby keeping courts open,” the Chief Justice said.
The Chief Justice highlighted several funding requests to the Legislature:
- $1.8 million in one-time funding for redaction of more than 80 million pages of case records in the Judiciary’s electronic database. Redaction of confidential information, such as dates of birth and Social Security numbers, is necessary for the Judiciary to implement a system allowing online access by the public to records in court case files.
- $550,000 to expand a program to all magistrate courts for assessing whether defendants can be safely released pending trial. Personnel at the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court perform the screening and assessments, including determining whether a defendant has prior convictions and a history of violence. After a video interview, eligible defendants may be released from jail. Only defendants charged with misdemeanors and some non-violent felonies are eligible for the program.
- $450,000 in one-time funding to expand Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) to courts statewide. ODR is being piloted in three judicial districts for debt and money due cases. The automated negotiation process, the Chief Justice told lawmakers, “resolves cases quickly, and frees up judges to focus on more complex civil cases, and on their criminal dockets.”
- $650,000 to improve training for judges and court personnel. The Judicial Education Center, which is based at the University of New Mexico, is funded by fees on traffic citations and that revenue has declined 31% in the past eight years. The $650,000 would restore judicial education funding to its 2012 level, and allow for expanded online course offerings as well as regular training locally, regionally and statewide for judges and staff.