Vetoes ruffle feathers, but one of the more curious rows is between the governor, who is a career attorney, and the courts.

This year Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed an 8 percent pay increase for the state's judges. Even though the National Center for State Courts declared New Mexico judges to be the nation's lowest paid, Martinez sees it as a fairness issue. Other state employees got only a 3 percent increase, she has said, while judges got the 5 percent increase intended for them plus the 3 percent for all state employees.

Last month a group of judges and the associations representing them, along with two legislators, sued to overturn the veto.

New Mexico's courts have become threadbare in recent years. During the governor's first legislative session in 2011, Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles W. Daniels pleaded for enough funding to keep the doors open. Budgets were down, caseloads were up, and the courts had cut costs in every possible way, even laying off good, experienced employees.

The case backlog was growing, along with lines in the courthouse. Daniels emphasized that a functioning judiciary is so basic to our democracy that it's written into the Constitution.

During this year's session Supreme Court Justice Petra Maes said the courts are operating on a bare bones budget. "There isn't any padding there. We always run a pretty lean budget," she said, and "need to put some muscle back on that skeleton."

The governor's spokesman argued that judiciary spending increased more than public schools or health and human services; the governor proposed an increase of just 0.9 percent, which meant no raises, no new judgeships, no additional money for drug courts. Maes argued that as a percentage of the state budget, judicial spending had actually decreased.

The Judicial Compensation Commission reported last year that at $112,746

judges make significantly less than a great many public officials in state and local government, and yet the governor's spokesman made them sound like greedheads: "Judges want to give themselves a raise that would have amounted to nearly three times the raise that teachers received."

Even Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, known for his tight grip on the budget, said this year: "This is one of the few branches of government that stepped to the plate and said, we'll find ways to try and make this system work, during the most difficult times, and we have some catching up to do."

A central issue in the lawsuit is the separation of powers divided among the Legislature, the executive and the judiciary.

Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, and. Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, joined the lawsuit to make the point that appropriation – setting judicial pay – is the Legislature's job, and the Constitution spells that out. As I've heard before in the Roundhouse, "We appropriate, the administration spends."

With the 8 percent increase, lawmakers were trying to compensate for the raises that weren't possible during the recession, Cisneros said. Muñoz points out that if we suppress these salaries long enough, we should worry about the quality of judges willing to do the job.

And it's not really an 8 percent increase because judges agreed to direct 3 percent of their raises to stabilize their pension fund.

One detail: In her veto, the governor eliminated salaries altogether for district, metro and magistrate judges. Doesn't somebody – a lawyer, perhaps – look at these things before they go out?

I don't remember an occasion when judges as a group went after a governor, but then this governor spends a lot of time in court. In poking her finger in the court's eye, it seems like the governor is also saying her lawyering days are over because she's bound for bigger things.

 

Sherry Robinson is a New Mexico journalist who began her career in 1976 and has served as assistant business editor and columnist with the Albuquerque Journal, editor of New Mexico Business Weekly and business editor of the Albuquerque Tribune.