Interview with Judge J. Miles Hanisee of the NM Court of Appeals

Judge J. Miles Hanisee (used with permission)

Yesterday I talked with Judge J. Miles Hanisee of the New Mexico Court of Appeals.  Judge Hanisee was appointed to a seat on the Court by Governor Susana Martinez in 2011, and is the Republican nominee for that seat in this year’s general election.  I hope you will find this interview to be informative, and I hope to be posting some more interviews in the near future.

UPDATE: If you would like to find out more information about Judge Hanisee’s campaign, his campaign website is here.

Questions appear below in italics, and Judge Hanisee’s responses follow in plain text:

Q.        It is Monday, October 22, and I’m here at the New Mexico Court of Appeals with Judge Miles Hanisee to ask him a few questions regarding his race for the Court of Appeals.

A.        Sure.  My pleasure.  Let me congratulate you on your new blog.  It’s nicely laid out and I enjoy looking at it.

Q.        Thanks! Tell us about your family and background before going to law school.

A.        Okay, well I was born in New Orleans, raised until I was 17 just outside of New Orleans.  At that time my family announced to us that we were relocating to Taos, New Mexico, and my mom’s lived there ever since.  My family headed that way, and I went to Louisiana State University, and then I came out west, and kept going, to Pepperdine University School of Law.  The day I graduated my U-Haul was packed to come here to New Mexico to take the bar.  That was in 1994, and I have practiced law here ever since.  I’m married, my wife’s a social worker in the Albuquerque Public Schools.  We have twin 10-year old children. 

Q.        Why did you decide to go to law school in general, and Pepperdine in particular?

 A.        I graduated from college with an English degree, with a literature option.  I’ve been interested in written and oral communication, so for me going to law school sort of took that interest into a career path.  And I was interested in the advocacy, and interested in what has always been, at least for the most part, regarded as an honorable profession.  And I pretty much decided early on in my college career to try to do that.  I enrolled in a pre-law curriculum right when I was a freshman at LSU.  So that was the decision to go to law school.

And Pepperdine, I think, is a special institution.  It’s in a beautiful place, in southern California.  And having been born and partially raised in Louisiana, I didn’t want to go back there.  And I hadn’t lived in New Mexico long enough to yet become interested in UNM.  Now of course, I am.  Our court is on their property, and we’re very collaborative with that institution.  I’d certainly be proud to have a UNM degree.

But I made my way out to Pepperdine, and I think it was the right decision for me.

Q.        Tell us about your experience as a lawyer after Pepperdine, and specifically any experience you have had in litigating before appellate courts.

A.        Sure.  I think the strength of my application to the Court of Appeals is my appellate experience.  It started when I still was in law school, when I was picked by the current Chief Judge of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Alex Kozinski, to serve as an extern in his chambers back in 1992.

So I was actually asked to draft my first opinions for a federal court of appeals judge back in ’92 and that was really a neat experience, not only because of the appellate law factor, but Judge Kozinski is one of the more colorful and known appellate jurists in the United States.  One of the things he would do in addition to writing opinions is he was hired, I think by the L.A. Times, to draft Nintendo game reviews.  He gave speeches all over the country, and he has an ability to communicate that has been noticed not only within, but beyond, the legal profession.  So getting to write for him was a tremendous first exposure to appellate law.

I then had a year to go in law school, so I finished that, but during that time I just basically got a list of the federal court of appeals judges in the United States, and started sending letters out, hoping to land a law clerk spot.  And it was my great fortune, I think, to get that opportunity with Oliver Seth.

Oliver Seth was the former chief judge of the Tenth Circuit.  He was one of the last of the Kennedy appointees at the time I started writing for him back in 1994.  I got to do that until March of ‘96 when he died.  I finished my first one-year clerkship.  He asked me to stay on for another.  I stayed on, and unfortunately he didn’t quite make the balance of that year.  The good news for me, [Tenth Circuit Judge] Paul Kelly, who by then was familiar with my work, he picked me up, went to the Circuit, and got permission to have me come on immediately and start clerking for him.  So I got to write also for Paul Kelly.

Given that appellate experience, soon thereafter I was in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, going up to Denver, representing the United States in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.  John Kelly was the U.S. Attorney then, and hired me into the office, initially to work on some district court cases, and, I think, within a year and a half or so, I was up in Denver arguing appeals, which was what I always wanted to do.

I went into private practice in 2007, and had a really unique opportunity to argue to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals up in Chicago on a white-collar criminal case up there, with some issues of witness unavailability and opportunity to cross-examine pursuant to the Confrontation Clause.

So appellate law has been my passion all of my career.  Kind of like you, I think, in some respects, you like that aspect of law.  And it’s why I applied for the job that I’m in.  It’s the only judicial spot I’ve ever applied for.

Q.        Why did you decide to run for the Court of Appeals, and why should voters elect you?

A.        Well, you know, “decide to run”–it’s a requirement.  Gubernatorial appointments to the courts expire at the time of the next election, general election cycle.  So if I wanted to keep my job, I needed to run to let the voters decide who their next Court of Appeals judge is going to be.  So, you know, part of the process when you accept this position is the realization that you have to run to keep it in the area that matches the court’s jurisdiction.  So, for me, all of a sudden I became a statewide candidate for public office, which is not something I’d grown up planning to do, but it’s also been a pretty incredible experience.

Q.        What, if anything, about the Court of Appeals do you think could be or should be improved?

A.        Well, always, particularly within the state judiciary, we have a major resources problem.  And, of course, that requires interaction with the Legislature, which our Chief Judge constantly does.  Our Chief Judge [Celia Foy] Castillo has done that in the entirety of the tenure that I’ve been here.  Our next Chief Judge is Rod Kennedy, and he’ll be doing the same thing.

First and foremost, anytime you improve resources in the judiciary as a whole, all the courts up the chain will improve.  We review appeals from all 13 judicial districts.  District judges are very overtaxed in the amount of cases they carry.  When they issue rulings it’s difficult for them to have time to sit down and write them.  They don’t have law clerks, they don’t have staff attorneys.  And the way to improve the Court of Appeals, and probably the Supreme Court, then, is to have more resources down in the District Courts, so that when we get rulings, they’re clearer, there’s a better record, they’re better written.  Because, you know, at the Court of Appeals, that’s what we look to, is the District Court’s record.  And our job becomes infinitely harder when the record is sparse, through no fault of the courts, for the most part.

I think that’s how you improve the judiciary as a whole.  And then what you would see on our Court is improvements on time, getting out cases, moving cases quicker.  The less you have to sit down and listen to cassette tapes, and believe it or not, we still get cassette records from some parts of the state, the more we’re able to write the opinions that resolve the cases.

Q.        Please describe your judicial philosophy as an appellate judge. 

A.        Well, that’s a question you get all over the place.  I’ll tell you, I have one judicial philosophy, and that’s to get it right.  And I say that because the most important thing is for our cases to be decided correctly, with uniformity, with consistency, and in a manner that speaks in a way that district courts can learn from the appellate rulings, in a manner that is not overly wordy, because you know, the things we say as appellate courts can get twisted up down the line.  So I think we need to write clearly; we need to get it right.

I think, certainly, you always start with the United States and New Mexico Constitutions.  Any judicial philosophy should have that.  You make sure that rulings comport with those, statutes, or a process of legislative thought and production, and we need to follow them.  Judges that follow the law, that apply the law, are always the best judges, and always the best for the judiciary.

We have to be faithful to precedent.  We have to be faithful, of course, to our Supreme Court’s precedent.  We have, you know, we don’t, as a court, unlike many appellate courts in the country, we don’t meet en banc, so occasionally there’s some inconsistency within our own case law, and I think that, where there’s not that, we have to be cautious about creating more.  When our court has decided an issue, we need to observe good precedent.

And then once you get past those things, you know those are the formative things, you’ve got standards of review.  Standards of review in any case are critical for an appellate judge to understand because they tell us not only what we can do, but they tell us what we can’t do.  And there are reasons that those standards of review are what they are, and when we’re not supposed to do something, when our review is limited, we have to be careful to maintain that.  So I guess you can craft a “follow the law, follow the law as it’s written” judicial philosophy from that answer.  But most important of all, is cases should be decided correctly on the law.

Q.        What present or past justice on the U.S. Supreme Court do you most admire, and why?

A.        Well, I have always admired, and I’ve heard this question at a lot of judicial forums, and I’ve been waiting to be asked it, so I’m glad you have.  I think Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is the justice that to me really stands out.  Appointed by President Ronald Reagan at a time when there were no females on the United States Supreme Court, she suffered, I think, a good bit of criticism just by virtue of her gender.  I can remember one of the running backs for the Washington Redskins, where the U.S. Supreme Court sits, referring to her as “Sandy Baby.”  And there were all sorts of things that I think she went to, becoming the only female on the Supreme Court–went through, I should say.

And then, if you follow her career trajectory on the Supreme Court, she was that critical, deciding, moderate voice that was difficult to predict ahead of time.  She wanted to get it right, as I say should be all our judicial philosophy.  And she walked that deciding vote line, I think, really admirably in her career.

The other thing that’s great about her, which Judge Seth used to say, is that she’s as close to the first New Mexico [U.S.] Supreme Court justice as we’ve ever had, because her back yard in Arizona looked out over towards the state of New Mexico.  So I really admire her, and I think she blazed the trail for a lot of good judges and justices.

Q.        What book, or books, have had the greatest influence on you? 

A.        Well, I read a lot.  Not only legal briefs and opinions, but I enjoy fiction, I enjoy literature.  I’ll say as far as a book that was sort of part of your answer as to what sent me into law.  I really enjoyed Crime and Punishment, by Dostoyevsky, not only because criminal law has always fascinated me.  The criminal process has always fascinated me.  But that book involves a dogged detective, sort of Jean Valjean-esque.  And the guy struggling with a crime that he knows he committed, and that he can’t quite get away from himself.

So I think when I was first assigned that book to read, it was one of those things that planted the seed of interest in my mind in law, and in particular criminal law, which I did for 11 years in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, not only as an appellate lawyer, but I tried a lot of cases to juries in criminal law, did a lot of criminal defense work when I was in private practice.  So that book in particular is one that I’ve enjoyed.

The other book that anyone should read, and is really my favorite book of all time, being from New Orleans originally, is A Confederacy of Dunces.  Hilarious book, it captures the magic of the city of New Orleans back in the late 60s, and was written by a guy who, unfortunately, committed suicide at a really young age, and I can only imagine the literature we missed out on.  John Kennedy Toole was his name.

As far as legal books go, The Conscience of a Lawyer is a great book.  I can’t think of the author, but it’s published, I think, by West.  And it traces a murder case through the eyes of a young lawyer, and many ethical issues are encountered.  I’ll get you the name of the author, it’s a super book.  [After the interview, Judge Hanisee told me that the author’s name is David Mellinkoff].

Q.        What do you do for enjoyment and relaxation in your spare time (if any)? 

A.        Well, I’ve got 10-year old twins.  This year has been a tough one, because if I’m not working, I’m traveling around the state introducing myself to voters.  But playing with them is what I do.  I run a lot.  My Duke City marathon team did well yesterday.  I spend a lot of time in fitness.  But playing with my kids is the main thing.  We play a lot of table tennis.

Q.        New Mexico’s official question is “Red or Green?”  What’s your answer, and where do you go for it?

A.        Red for breakfast, green for lunch, red for dinner.   I like Padilla’s, I like Duran’s, and of course Barelas [Coffee House] downtown is superb.

Q.        Judge Hanisee, thank you for your time today, I appreciate it. 

A.        And thanks for everything you do to cover appellate law.  I sure appreciate it.  Thanks.




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