State Supreme Court Position 2 race is a study in opposites

Oct. 25—One candidate spent years hearing cases in New Mexico's busiest legal venues before being named to the state Supreme Court a year ago.

Her challenger has a long career in private practice and as a prosecutor and unabashedly trumpets his conservative credentials.

The matchup in the state Supreme Court race between Justice Briana Zamora, a Democrat, and Republican Kerry Morris is a study in opposites.

Zamora, 48, who was appointed to the state's highest court by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in 2021, said her experience as a judge in every level of the state's judicial system sets her apart.

But Morris said voters should choose him because his decades of experience will allow him to bring balance and common sense to the court. He is part of a team of judicial candidates, including Gertrude Lee, Barbara Johnson and Thomas Montoya, who promise to "put the law before politics."

Before her appointment, Zamora served on the Court of Appeals for roughly three years and as a trial court judge for about 10 years. Before that, she served in both metropolitan and district courts in Albuquerque.

Morris, 70, ran for Metro Court in 1986, District Court in 2004 and most recently the state Supreme Court in 2020. In his practice, Morris said he primarily handles probate and injury cases and has a contract with the New Mexico Risk Management Division.

"I'm the only [candidate] who's issued decisions and opinions, and I've done so in every area of the law," Zamora said during a recent interview. "I'm the only one who's had nearly 150 jury trials in my career, and I have extensive experience in our criminal justice system.

"I'm the only one who has actually gone through the bipartisan judicial nominating commission and been recommended, and [I] have done that four times. Each time they recommended me to the governor," Zamora added.

Morris argued these types of nominations are far from bipartisan, as Democratic judges greatly outnumber Republicans in state courts.

"The governor appointed 45 judges, 43 of which are Democrats. If that's not partisan, what is?" Morris said. "Traditionally, Republicans are not elected in New Mexico, and I think that's a problem because there's no balance. ... I think it's important that we have a balance of views on the Supreme Court because it is a legislative body and makes law."

Supreme Court justices serve eight-year terms and must stand in retention elections, in which they need to receive 57 percent voter approval. If appointed — as Zamora was in 2021 — a justice must win election in a partisan race to remain on the bench.

Morris said justices should have to run in a partisan election when their term ends, rather than standing for retention.

"I think they should stand for partisan elections, so their decisions can be evaluated by the public, in light of an opponent who's going to criticize them, and I have several critiques for the courts, and particularly for my opponent," he said.

Though judges are not supposed to make decisions based on politics, Morris claimed Zamora has broken this rule on multiple occasions throughout her time as a judge.

During a recent interview, Zamora said she has followed state regulations and made efforts to ensure her decision are made fairly. She hopes to see the court improve its transparency with the public by giving it better access to information on pending cases and improving livestreams of proceedings. She said she also hopes the court's new Commission on Mental Health and Competency will improve resources in the state for people going through the judicial system.

"One thing that's near and dear to my heart is mental health and behavioral health because of the lack of resources I felt I had, despite being in the largest trial court in the largest jurisdiction in the state," Zamora said. "Seventy percent of the individuals that enter into our criminal justice system have some sort of behavioral health issue. ... So I think having a holistic approach — making sure we have a housing advocate on our commission, law enforcement and first responders — to address some of these underlying issues like mental health and substance abuse will have a huge impact on crime."

Morris noted if he were elected, he would work to interpret statutory law "in the original meaning of the words that were used at the time the statute was written. I'm conservative, and I believe in the original meaning or language of the U.S. Constitution and the state of New Mexico Constitution as well.

"Also, I think the court needs to be more restrained and some things that it does because the decisions are so far-reaching and not appealable," he added. "I mean, the Legislature can try to override what something the Supreme Court has done, but it's very difficult. ... Basically, we need to be more restrained and careful and thoughtful about the consequences, both foreseeable and unforeseeable."