Interview with Justice Judith Nakamura, Republican candidate for the New Mexico Supreme Court

Justice Judith Nakamura
Justice Judith Nakamura

I recently met with Justice Judith Nakamura, who was appointed to the New Mexico Supreme Court in 2015 by Governor Martinez. She is running to keep her seat as the Republican candidate in this year’s general election. Her campaign website is here.

Q.  Good afternoon, I’m here with Justice Judith Nakamura of the New Mexico Supreme Court. Thank you for talking with me today.

A.  Thank you for meeting with me. Good afternoon.

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

A.  My family moved to New Mexico when I was twelve years old. My mom had just remarried, and she and my dad came to New Mexico to look for land where they would retire when the kids were out of school. Well, on the completion of that one trip to New Mexico, they returned to New York and said “Guess what? At the end of this school year, we’re moving to New Mexico.”

Imagine the shock for a twelve-year-old girl! So we moved to Rio Rancho, and I grew up in Sandoval County and Bernalillo County, attending middle school in the North Valley, and eventually Cibola High School.

And I’m single and the mother of three adorable but loud rescue dogs.

Q.   And where did you go to college?

A.  I went to the University of New Mexico for both my undergraduate and law school degrees.

Q.   Why did you decide to go to law school?

A.  Well, I never envisioned being a lawyer, much less a judge. I was involved in political campaigns. And I happened to meet a gentleman who was in the Reagan administration, and he said “What do you do for a living?” And I proudly said, “I work on campaigns.” And he looked me straight in the eye and said, “That’s not a career. You should consider something like law school.”

And he convinced me in short order that it is a degree that not only teaches you analytical skills, but more importantly, even if I had no interest in ever practicing law, it was a good degree to have. I could use it in many arenas. So I started speaking to people in the business community, and my friends and family, and I decided  that it’s just a great degree to have in terms of teaching you discipline and analytical skills. I wanted to stay in New Mexico so I applied to and went to the University of New Mexico Law School.

Q.  Describe your legal career before your appointment to the New Mexico Supreme Court.

A.  Upon graduation from the UNM Law School, I went to work for the New Mexico State Land Office, where I eventually became its general counsel. Upon completion of that job, when the land commissioner no longer wished to run again, I went to work for a small business here in Albuquerque, a computer reseller. And I was their legal department. I was still a fairly new lawyer.

After a period of time I thought I could really benefit from the counsel of other attorneys. So I was offered and accepted a job with a firm at the time called Miller, Stratvert, Torgerson & Schlenker, a civil litigation firm. Most folks don’t know, but there was a short period of time when I left Miller to do plaintiff’s work before being invited back to the firm.

And I was at Miller until running for the Metropolitan Court in 1998. I did that because I was not happy with the practice of law. I realized that what I didn’t like about the practice of law were the judges, quite frankly, judges who I felt were unprepared. We spend a lot of time writing briefs, and they weren’t reading them. Or some judges, I felt, weren’t particularly respectful of the parties or attorneys, et cetera. So I decided to run for the Metropolitan Court, vowing not to be the sort of judge that I’d experienced.

And let me say as a side note, I think it’s changed dramatically, the bench. We have a pretty good bench statewide.

But I ran for the Metropolitan Court, and was successful, and spent fourteen years there. My colleagues elected me as their Chief Judge for about an eleven-year period.

I then  was appointed and elected to the District Court here in Bernalillo County. Actually, I was contemplating retirement when I was approached about the Supreme Court opening.

Q.  Why did you decide to seek a seat on the New Mexico Supreme Court, and why should the voters choose you?

A.  Again, I never envisioned myself as a judge, much less a justice. Sometimes I speak to young lawyers now who tell me that their goal is to be where I am. It’s not something I ever thought about.

I had a number of lawyers, as well as judges, encourage me to consider it. At first I laughed it off, but then, as more folks said “I want you to really think about this, Judy, you have experiences that would be of value to the appellate court.” So I was encouraged to apply, and even when I applied, I wasn’t sure that I was going to proceed forward. I gave it more thought. I spoke to family, spoke to friends, spoke to many in the legal community, and decided it was something I thought I could offer to the legal community, and that I could add value to the Supreme Court.

And what I mean by that is I think I have diverse, recent, relevant experience that is of value to my colleagues on the Supreme Court, and is of value to the legal community. In addition to being a hands-on trial judge who understands the impact of the decisions of the New Mexico Supreme Court, I also have vast management experience that I acquired at the Metropolitan Court, a very large court with over 300 employees and a $22 million budget. I felt I did a good job there, or my colleagues wouldn’t have asked me to be their chief judge.

Of course I have a diverse legal background, having practiced in civil and having been a criminal trial judge. But I think it’s much of the practical, day-to-day experience that adds value to the Supreme Court, because only half of what the Supreme Court does is adjudicate and hear cases. The other half is this immense administrative responsibility.

Q.   Is there anything you would change about New Mexico’s process for selecting and electing appellate judges?

A.  Oh, absolutely. I would eliminate partisan races. As Chief Justice Daniels says, we have the best and worst system combined in one. We have this bipartisan, nonpartisan merit selection process, and then we throw in a partisan race. You go out and meet the voters and tell them why you’re the best candidate, but don’t tell them how you’re going to rule on cases. But of course that’s what they want to know.

The biggest problem I have – and I read about this a long time ago and I agree with it fully – is that politics breeds gratitude, gratitude breeds deference, and deference erodes the independence of our third branch of government.

Do I think we completely eliminate elections? No. I’ve read that some states have a confirmation process where, after an appellate judge is selected, it’s sort of like our retention process, where the voters get to say yes or no to that person.

I have enjoyed the campaign. I’ve enjoyed getting out and meeting folks, and I think more judges should do it, because it has made people feel more confident about our judicial process. They get to see that we are real-life human beings who live in their communities. But partisan politics is not the way to go.

Q.  How would you describe your judicial philosophy?

A.  To get it right. I think it’s futile, and of little value, to try to pigeonhole a judge into a category, of strict constructionist, or liberal. And so, I don’t assign a label to myself or others.

I will tell you that obviously I believe that the role of creativity belongs to legislators, not judges.

Q.   What appellate judge, living or dead, do you most admire, and why?

A.  Pamela Minzner. Maybe you were wanting a U.S. Supreme Court justice, but when I think of appellate, I think of Pamela Minzner. You know, I’m part of the legal community that just has extraordinary respect for who she was, as a person and as a justice. She, in my opinion, epitomized grace, and courtesy, in all she did. She was a brilliant mind and legal scholar, and I think there’s lots to learn from Justice Minzner. I admire her.

Q.   What one or more books have had the most influence on you?

A.  Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. You know, I read a lot, and I can’t really say there’s any one book, but if there’s a book that I think about often, it’s this.

And I think it’s because Lincoln possessed this ability to bring together these disgruntled opponents, and marshaled their talents for the good of the Union. And I think it’s a really great book about overcoming obstacles.

Q.   And what do you do for enjoyment in your free time, if you have any free time?

A.  I fly hot air balloons, that’s my passion. Early in my career I said I had to work just to pay for the fuel. I fly a hot air balloon, and it’s a friendly sport, it’s a beautiful sport.

But there’s also a satisfying aspect to it, in terms of applying the skills you’ve acquired to have a safe and enjoyable launch, flight, and landing. Having a safe and enjoyable flight isn’t just coincidence. It’s the result of study, aviation rules, weather, and there’s just a lot of skill that’s involved in it. It’s my true love for the ballooning community, and who they are, that probably is my greatest joy in this world.

Q.   Red or green? And where is your favorite place to eat it.

A.  Red. Anywhere.

Q.   Justice Nakamura, thanks very much for your time this afternoon.

A.  Well that was fun, thank you.

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