How About An Independent Judiciary?

Checks and balances. . . uhm, partnerships

Gov. Bill Richardson’s letter to the chief justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court ought to have constitutional lawyers cringing. But they are not, because this is about the war on drunk driving, and like the war on terrorism, it is suspending the rules.

Richardson asked Chief Justice Petra Maes to revoke the high court’s six-month prosecution rule. It was adopted about 30 years ago because prosecutors were letting police charges hang without action, sometimes for years.

Criminal defendants have a constitutional right to a timely trial, and the six-month rule was intended to put pressure on district attorneys. In many cases since the rule was adopted, automatic dismissal under the rule has been politically effective for DA’s who weren’t doing their job.

But now public opinion seems focused on the judges, not the prosecutors. The governor’s letter was prompted by an Albuquerque case where a drunk driver was let off because of the six-month rule.

The Albuquerque DA eventually apologized, but not before her office had some success in shifting blame from it’s own people to the metro judge. Then Richardson added to the judicial blame with his letter to Maes.

He said the six-month rule is unrealistic in DWI cases and, in his words, “This miscarriage of justice must be stopped.” Maes has not released her response, but there have been chief justices in the past who would have told the governor to mind his own business. Or to file a petition like everybody else.

In his state of the state address in January, Richardson declared war on drunk drivers. As chief executive he has a great deal of influence over law enforcement.

But then he added the courts to the picture, saying, in these words, “progress we have made against DWI in the streets loses traction in our courts.” Adding that he would call upon Maes “to be a partner in public safety” by chainging certain rules and procedures in order to demand respect from criminals and earn the respect of citizens.

Maes was seated just behind him and nodded in agreement. That was before the Albuquerque case, but the governor’s letter is almost a followup to the speech.

Not long after the speech, the governor came out for the 34 per cent pay increase for judges, including the chief. Her raise would come to about $33,OOO.

The war on drunk driving is like the war on terrorism. A lot of the usual rules are being changed. But the respect of the citizens for the system of law and rights and especially for the idea of an independent judiciary should not be lost in the process.