Nominating commission interviews NM Supreme Court applicants

This morning I had the pleasure of attending the New Mexico Judicial Nominating Commission’s meeting in Santa Fe to interview applicants for the Supreme Court seat that Justice Bosson will vacate at the end of the month.

The meeting started at 9:00 a.m. Members of the Commission were sworn in, and Dean Alfred Mathewson of UNM Law School reported on the Commission’s efforts to notify the public of the vacancy and to solicit qualified applicants.

Before the applicant interviews begin, the public is allowed to comment. Sometimes colleagues or former clients will appear to recommend an applicant, and often no one will comment at all.

Not today. At this morning’s meeting, the Commission heard from Stuart L. Stein, a former estate planning lawyer who was disbarred by the New Mexico Supreme Court in 2007. The Supreme Court then issued an opinion in February 2008 explaining its decision and detailing Mr. Stein’s multiple violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct. See In re Stuart L. Stein.

The Supreme Court found that “[t]here is ample evidence to prove that [Mr. Stein] knowingly and intentionally violated the Rules of Profession Conduct,” (paragraph 62), that Mr. Stein’s insistence that he did nothing wrong, as well as his “attitude” and his “answers to questions” about his conduct, “give cause for alarm,” (paragraph 67), and noted his “denial and refusal to account for his actions.” (paragraph 70).

The Supreme Court’s opinion did, however, leave open the possibility that Mr. Stein might be reinstated someday. See Paragraph 73. However, his comments at this morning’s Commission meeting probably did little to advance his cause. (In fact, I suspect the Stuarts may have a better chance of being restored to the throne of Great Britain, but I digress….)

As the Supreme Court’s opinion explains (paragraph 2), Mr. Stein’s conduct was reported to the Disciplinary Board by then-District Judge Linda Vanzi, now on the Court of Appeals, who is one of today’s applicants. Evidently, Mr. Stein has not forgotten this, since he used his public comment time this morning to repeatedly impugn Judge Vanzi’s integrity, and to accuse her of trampling his due process rights during the case that ultimately led to his disbarment. No contrition here.

At first I was shocked and angered by what he was saying. I was also saddened, because when people impugn a judge’s integrity, the judge usually cannot actively defend himself or herself. And accusations like this, even if completely unfounded, can leave the public with lingering questions or doubts about a judge’s integrity.

Well, I’m here to tell you there should be no lingering doubts whatsoever. I was not involved in the case that led to Mr. Stein’s disbarment, and have no personal knowledge of it. However, I appeared before Judge Vanzi multiple times when she was a district judge, and in several appeals since she became an appellate judge. Sometimes she has decided cases in my clients’ favor, and sometimes not. I agree with some of her appellate opinions, and disagree with some.

But I have never once doubted, and don’t see how anyone could doubt, that she is a person of integrity who works hard and does her best to decide cases impartially and in conformity with the law. Mr. Stein would do well to emulate her example.

Well, on to the interviews…

The first applicant was Frank Susman, a Missouri lawyer with a lot of appellate experience who now lives in Santa Fe. The Committee asked him a number of questions about his lack of membership in the New Mexico bar. Mr. Susman also said that if he were appointed, he would put his name on the ballot in the 2016 election, but would do nothing to campaign for the seat, because he does not believe there should be partisan judicial elections.

Next up was Chief Judge Michael Vigil of the Court of Appeals, who spoke about the need for judges to check their egos at the door and exercise the virtue of humility. Given his extensive experience as an appellate judge, I thought he received a positive reception from the Commission.

Paul Grace, a lawyer in private practice, said he previously practiced law in Washington, D.C. before moving to Santa Fe in 2000. He was asked about his lack of judicial experience, and in response stressed his overall legal experience. I’ve never met him, but he seemed like a capable and intelligent lawyer, and I would not be surprised to see someone like him obtain a district judgeship.

Samuel Winder, a former district judge (who also formerly worked at my law firm) discussed his interesting background — his father was an African-American laborer with little education, and his mother was a member of the Southern Ute tribe. The Commission asked him a lot of questions about a Facebook post he wrote after a murder trial in 2012, and he was very contrite about his error in posting about a pending case.

The last interview I saw was of Judge Judith Nakamura of the Second Judicial District Court. Commission members praised her work on the Metro Court, and I thought she received a very positive reception.

Unfortunately, due to the press of business back in my office, I left at lunch time, and thus did not see the interviews of Judge Gary Clingman, Judge Linda Vanzi, or Diana Martwick, the District Attorney of the 12th Judicial District.

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