I recently spoke with Judge Stephen French, who was appointed by Governor Susana Martinez to the Court of Appeals earlier this year, and who is running as a Republican in the general election next month. His campaign website is here.
Q. I’m here today with Judge Stephen French of the New Mexico Court of Appeals. Good morning, and thanks for talking with me today.
A. Good morning!
Q. Tell us about your family, and your background before going to law school.
A. Well, my family has been in Albuquerque since 1888 on my mother’s side. I’m part of the Giomi clan. My great-grandfather, Girolomo Giomi, came to Albuquerque in 1888. My grandfather, Guido Giomi, who I’m named after, was born in Albuquerque in 1896. So, I have deep roots here in New Mexico.
My wife and I met in law school. She is a practicing attorney. We have two lovely daughters. My oldest daughter, Lauren, will be 30 on October 7. My younger daughter will be 28 on September 23. My older daughter is in the Navy, and on September 14, just a few weeks ago, I became a proud grandfather of my granddaughter, Penelope. My second daughter, Kendall, has an engineering degree, and a master’s of engineering degree, from Purdue University, and she is building things in Oakland, California.
Q. Why did you decide to attend law school, and where did you go?
A. I decided to attend law school in ninth grade, and again when I was a senior in high school, when I got involved in Youth in Government programs. I applied to California Western in San Diego in 1977, and I sure am glad I did, because that’s where I met my wife, Kathy.
Q. Tell us about your legal career up to this point, especially your appellate experience.
A. Well, my legal career started off in 1980 as a prosecutor in the Metropolitan Court here in Albuquerque for the Second Judicial District. I went from Metro Court to property and narcotics, and prosecuted some violent crime cases.
After that, I signed up to be on the Criminal Justice Act panel, doing federal public defender work, where I requested assignment of violent crime cases involving Native Americans charged under the Assimilated Crimes Act in United States District Court. I tried many of those cases.
In 1982, I became law partners with Jerry Walz, and we did plaintiffs’ civil litigation, criminal defense, family law, and plaintiffs’ civil rights litigation.
In 1986, after reading about the terrible kidnapping and murder of Linda Lee Daniels, I called Jackie Robins, who was the state public defender at the time, and volunteered to defend Wallace Randolph Pierce. It was a death penalty case and I successfully saved his life.
So about that time, up until about 1990, I was doing criminal defense work and plaintiffs’ civil rights work. In about 1986, I started defending civil rights cases. So, I have had an interesting, full-blown practice.
In 1990, I became first head of the Legal Bureau for Risk Management for the State of New Mexico. Then I want back into private practice in 1993 and built French and Associates. I pretty much exclusively defended civil rights cases until I wound down my Firm in 2015. At that point, I started conducting mediations exclusively, although I had done mediation for the last 17 years.
So that’s kind of a general overview of my background. Now, I checked the court docket, and I’ve done over 84 appeals to the Tenth Circuit, mostly as the appellee. I then went and counted my cases in state court, and I believe I had about 30 appeals to the Court of Appeals and to the New Mexico Supreme Court. A couple of them were really precedent-setting cases.
Q. Why did you decide to serve on the New Mexico Court of Appeals, and why should the voters choose you?
A. I think that after a long and varied career I thought I would take the opportunity to give back to our bar a little bit. I have a prosecutorial and criminal defense background. After being a plaintiff’s lawyer and civil rights defense attorney, I developed extensive trial and appellate experience. I felt like I’d been meeting the legal needs of the citizens of New Mexico for a long time. When you do defense work, remember, you’re representing the cities, counties, jails, police departments, schools, and universities. When you’re representing the public entities of the State of New Mexico, you’re not representing Democrats, or Republicans, you’re representing the people. I felt that with my mediation background, I could go on the Court, and work with the judges in a collegial and professional way, and try to help with the caseload. I thought that I could serve the people of New Mexico well.
Q. How would you describe your judicial philosophy?
A. My judicial philosophy — I’m going to describe it but I don’t want it to sound too simple: I try to get it right.
Let’s talk about that for a second. If you look at the criminal cases that we do – and by the way, three-quarters of our cases are criminal law. Every month, each judge gets three cases, and most of the time, all three are criminal. So, I try to get it right, and by that I mean that I take a constitutional approach and I try to look to what the jury did, what the jury instructions were, and what some of the rulings were. I always try to look at whether the conviction comports with the Constitution, particularly the New Mexico Constitution, which is unique.
These are tough matters. In one particular case, I’m not going to name it, I was deeply concerned about the case. I took the time to read the entire trial to make sure that how I was ruling on the case was right, based on the evidence that was before me. We don’t get to retry those cases, our review is based on the evidence that is before us, with a deferential view towards the verdict.
Sometimes civil cases involve constitutional dimensions. So my philosophy is to listen to the other judges, read the briefs, and I know it sounds simple, but I try to get it right.
Q. Is there anything about the Court of Appeals you think could be improved?
A. First of all, let me start by saying this: I’ve been on the Court for eight months. I am one of these guys who doesn’t like to offer changes before you fully understand the system.
Well, I’ve been there for eight months now. One of the things I would change about the Court of Appeals is out of our control. And as you know, it’s a hot topic, the budget. Our Court budget has already been cut around 1.6%. It now appears that the budget may be cut an additional 3%.
And what’s happened is that we have not filled very vital positions. As you know, the Prehearing Division does a huge amount of work. Now to give you a rough average, I think that the Court of Appeals handles about 1,000 cases per year. There are ten judges. It’s pretty easy to do the math. A lot of those are handled in Prehearing on the summary calendar. A lot of them are not. And I think we need the money to fund those positions, because we need the best turn-around time that we can have so as not to delay justice.
Another thing we’re working on is the Early Bench Decision Program, concerning CYFD cases regarding the termination of parental rights. Those are very emotional cases. We just changed our rule to try to get them out even faster. So, we’re constantly working on improving our own rules.
Q. Is there anything you would change about New Mexico’s process for selecting appellate judges?
A. My greatest concern is that we need to get politics out of judicial races. I would definitely recommend to the Legislature to amend our Constitution to say that after you go through a bipartisan committee, and are appointed by the Governor – whether Democrat or Republican – you’ve already gone through a bipartisan committee of Supreme Court members, Court of Appeals members, and the like. At a minimum, you should be able to be on the court for two years, regardless of when the election is. My preference would be a non-partisan election after at least two years.
Having judges run in partisan races is anathema to my view of the ethical rules for judicial conduct. You have to go out there and talk to people, and they ask you questions, and if you’re true to your ethical code, you can’t answer 95% of the questions, because they touch on matters that are likely to come before the court.
We’ve taken the money out of appellate judicial races through the Voter Action Act. Now we need to take the politics out.
Q. Tell us about your mediation practice.
A. I consider my mediation practice to be the most satisfying achievement of my legal career. For seventeen years I’ve been mediating civil rights cases of all different flavors, medical negligence cases, and Tort Claims Act cases. As it turned out, the very lawyers that I’d been litigating against would ask me to mediate their cases.
Q. What appellate judge, living or dead, do you most admire, and why?
A. Of course, the answer to that is Justice Antonin Scalia. I think we all have learned, and are learning, even though he had very conservative views, I think one of his greatest friends on the Court was Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Just because we don’t agree on a particular issue doesn’t mean that you should be disagreeable. And I think he set the real example for us, as did Justice Ginsburg. She was recently at the State Bar Convention here, and she had a great line. She said, “there’s no such thing as bad people, just bad ideas.”
Q. What book, or books, have had the most influence on you?
A. Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand.
Q. What do you do in your free time, if you have any free time?
A. Well, I don’t have much free time, but before I was fortunate enough to be appointed, I traveled a lot with my wife. I like to do spin class and work out.
Q. Red or green, and where’s your favorite place to eat it?
Q. Judge French, thank you for your time today.
A. Thank you, Emil.