Chief justice praises state's judiciary, defends bail system in speech

Jan. 24—State Supreme Court Chief Justice C. Shannon Bacon delivered the first State of the Judiciary address in four years Tuesday, telling a joint session of the House and Senate that New Mexico's court system is "battered and bruised, strong, resilient, creative, committed and caring."

In a session where crime legislation is already piling up at the Roundhouse, Bacon highlighted the rights of the accused in her approximately 30-minute speech, reminding lawmakers of the foundational ideals of the justice system.

"We all feel deep sorrow and fear when we read about a senseless death and other tragedies from crimes," she said. "Yet we must remember why our Constitution protects the rights of every person, including those accused of crime. They are just that — accused, and presumed innocent in the eyes of the law."

Bacon asked legislators to keep constitutional mandates in mind when considering proposed legislation and urged them to make decisions based on "verified data and facts" while keeping fiscal and human impacts in mind.

"Criminal justice reform, no matter what path you choose, is very expensive," Bacon said.

The judicial branch is requesting $243 million for its general operating budget for the upcoming fiscal year, a 17% increase over its previous year's budget of about $207 million, spokesman Barry Massey wrote in an email.

Even with the increase, the judiciary's share of the state's general fund will remain about 2.5%, where it has historically hovered.

"For every $1 spent on state government operations this year, 2.5 cents is to fund the court system," Massey wrote.

Bacon highlighted efforts the Supreme Court has put into place to expedite criminal cases, including pilot projects at Bernalillo County's Metro Court and Santa Fe Magistrate Court, which she said has greatly reduced the number of time-consuming preliminary hearings set in felony cases.

"The best deterrent of crime is swift justice," she said.

Bacon championed the controversial elimination of money bail — passed in 2016 and targeted for additional tweaks ever since — as something that strengthened the judiciary's ideals.

She said the measure made it more possible, not less, for judges to detain people who are a threat to public safety.

"Under the bail bond system, when someone was accused with a crime, including those we as a society label as the most dangerous, the accused was permitted to post a money bond," she said. "This resulted in most criminal defendants being free until trial. Not only was this system unconstitutional but also was more dangerous because it did not include any analysis of danger to the public.

"With the elimination of money bail, judges now have the ability to assess dangerousness — something they could not do before," she added.

Bacon devoted much of her address to highlighting the court system's accomplishments over the past several years, including its ability to pivot during the coronavirus pandemic.

Courts never closed, she noted, instead responding to the crisis by developing "innovative processes, services and procedures" such as remote and hybrid hearings to keep people safe, save time and money and improve court access for people who have difficulty traveling.

"We are working to expand the use of technology in courtrooms," she said adding the courts this month will begin studying the possibility of selecting jurors remotely.

Another product of the pandemic, Bacon said, was the court-based Eviction Prevention and Diversion Program, which she said assisted New Mexicans facing eviction and provided landlords with alternatives to eviction by connecting them with court navigators and mediators and distributing federal funding.

The program had disseminated more than $217 million, she said — money that went to rent, utility payments, emergency hotel stays and moving costs.

"I am very proud that the White House identified New Mexico's eviction and prevention program as the gold standard in the country. Think what we could accomplish if this funding were to continue," she said, noting the program is sunsetting because all the money has been spent.

The chief justice also highlighted the Supreme Court's recently created Commission on Mental Health and Competency — which she said "is considering how to better identify people in need of mental health treatment before they enter the justice system" — and Treatment Court, aimed at addressing the problems of defendants with substance abuse problems.

Self-help programs — which aid people without lawyers in navigating the court system — assisted an average of 14,500 people per year in Bernalillo County, the state's largest district court over each of the past three years, Bacon said.

"When people have access to legal resources, such as plain-language forms, legal advice, self-help centers or a pro bono attorney, they are empowered with knowledge about their full rights and the legal process," she said.

Bacon asked legislators to increase salaries for judges from the Court of Appeals through Metro Court this year, noting an initiative that would have done so last year was passed by the Legislature "but was not signed by the governor."

"It is consistently reported that low salaries interfere with competitive recruitment of judges from private practice," she said. "Passing this legislation will improve the judiciary's ability to recruit and retain high-quality judges with diverse practice backgrounds."