By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
SANTA FE, N.M. — It was a complicated case but, in the end, a specially selected panel of the New Mexico Supreme Court gave judges a 5 percent pay raise.
Included in that group getting the pay hike? The justices of the Supreme Court.
“I want to acknowledge the somewhat extraordinary circumstances” surrounding the case, Justice Richard Bosson said upon announcing a unanimous decision Wednesday morning over a dispute about a line-item veto issued by Gov. Susana Martinez earlier this year.
It was an unusual case, that’s for sure.
In one corner was Albuquerque attorney Ray Vargas, representing a group that included state court judges who wanted an 8 percent pay raise — a 5 percent bump for judges that was part of the state budget passed earlier this year, plus a 3 percent increase for all state employees.
In the other corner was Jessica Hernandez, the general counsel for Martinez, who argued the two separate raises couldn’t be divided. Therefore, the governor’s office argued, the entire pay raise package was no good.
Complicating things? The fact that the state Supreme Court justices — just as all judges across the state — would benefit from the pay raise, if upheld.
Adding to any appearance of a potential conflict of interest was the fact that Martinez administration said Justice Petra Jiminez Maes personally lobbied the governor’s office during the legislative session to give judges across the state a raise.
But if the state Supreme Court didn’t hear the case, who could?
It was decided that four of the five members of the high court would recuse themselves, leaving Bosson as acting chief justice. He was joined Wednesday by four recently retired judges — former Supreme Court Justice Patricio Serna, former Court of Appeals Judges A. Joseph Alarid and Celia Foy Castillo and former state District Judge James Hall.
In arguments that lasted an hour and nine minutes, Vargas contended Martinez was distorting the intent of the what lawmakers passed. “What the governor is attempting to do is step on the toes of the Legislature,” he said.
Hernandez countered by saying the Legislature didn’t make itself clear. “In the end, if the Legislature wants to give the judiciary a raise, it has to put it on the table … It’s not OK to hide the ball,” Hernandez said.
After deliberating for just under an hour, the judges ruled that the 3 percent raise was out but the across-the-board 5 percent raise for judges was in.
“We regard this as two appropriations,” Bosson said. “Therefore, the pay raises will go into effect.”
“We’re pleased with the ruling,” Vargas said. “Obviously, it’s not everything that we asked for but it was appropriate, soundly reasoned and fair for all.”
Hernandez worried the decision may increase friction between the Legislature and the executive branch, as well as opening the door for potential special sessions of the Legislature, which taxpayers pay for. “If legislators and the governor have to try to speculate about what language courts may read into a statute, it will cost the taxpayers more money,” Hernandez said.
Regardless of the legal issues addressed Wednesday, the fact remains that state Supreme Court justices are included in the group getting a raise — including Bosson, acting as the hearing’s presiding judge.
“You can also argue that four people who had absolutely no dog in this fight and it was unanimous,” Vargas said, “and I think the court did the right thing,”
“Justice Bosson, you’re right, stayed on (the case) and today issued a ruling that gives himself a 5 percent pay raise,” Hernandez said.
Here’s New Mexico Watchdog video of each attorney talking to reporters after the ruling:
Contact Rob Nikolewski at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski