Judith Nakamura appeared headed for victory in a nip-and-tuck race for a seat on the New Mexico Supreme Court, and if she maintained a narrow lead into the night would be the first Republican woman to win election to the court.
Gov. Susana Martinez appointed Nakamura, 55, to the Supreme Court after Justice Richard Bosson’s retirement earlier this year.
According to early, unofficial election night results, about 52 percent of voters favored Nakamura over state Appeals Court Chief Judge Michael Vigil.
Nakamura's apparent victory means the historic 3-2 majority for women on the Supreme Court will likely endure. A victory would cement her place on the state's highest court alongside Justice Barbara Vigil, who appeared to easily have won retention, and Justice Petra Jimenez Maes, who was not up for retention this election cycle.
Nakamura was elected to the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court bench in 1998 and, in relatively short order, rose to the chief judgeship there. Martinez appointed her to the District Court in 2013. During her years as a judge in Albuquerque, Nakamura has developed a reputation for tough sentencing and a law-and-order approach in the courtroom.
Among the five justices, she has the most recent and extensive experience as a trial judge. Nakamura will earn an annual salary of $133,000.
Meanwhile, Democrat Julie Vargas appeared to have beaten incumbent Republican Stephen French in the lone New Mexico Court of Appeals race with about 53 percent of the vote, according to early, unofficial totals on election night.
French had been appointed to the seat by Gov. Susana Martinez in February. Previously, he worked as a criminal defense attorney for more than two decades and, later in his career, often represented the city of Albuquerque in civil cases as a contract attorney with his own firm.
French had been Martinez' pick for the Appeals Court. She appointed him to the bench in February. Vargas would now begin work on Jan. 1. She will earn $124,000 a year as a judge on the 10-member Appeals Court, and she will be one of three women among the court's current makeup.
Although judicial races include partisan affiliation for candidates in New Mexico, they are largely considered apolitical contests. However, both Nakamura and French hired Jay McCleskey, Martinez's controversial political adviser and bogeyman of state Democrats, to run their campaigns.
Locked up poor? Not anymore:
Bail bond reformamendments sail through
Voters have overwhelmingly chosen to set a bridle on the role of money in judges' decisions about which defendants stay locked up and which go free before trial in New Mexico.
According to early, unofficial election night results, a change to the state constitution aimed at reforming the use of commercial bail had the support of 88 percent of voters.
Since statehood, the New Mexico Constitution has presumed all defendants are "bailable by sufficient sureties," except in certain capital cases. But reformers say that archaic, broad-brush language led to an over-reliance on so-called "cash or surety bonds," where defendants pay a fee—usually around 10 percent of the total amount—to a bondsman, who puts up the rest to secure a person's release.
That set up two systems of justice—one for those with money and another for those without—that has kept too many poor people accused of minor crimes behind bars before their trials and let too many dangerous people back on the streets because they could raise bail.
The constitutional amendment passed by voters allows judges to deny bail to defendants found dangerous at a pretrial hearing. It also bars judges from holding non-dangerous people in jail simply because they don't have money.
New Mexico joins Colorado, Oregon, New Jersey, Kentucky and Illinois in either discarding or reining in the use of commercial bail. The District of Columbia enacted bail reform 20 years ago.
The decisive victory for the measure belied a bruising battle during the January legislative session. Republicans in the state House threatened to strip the poverty protections from the measure until New Mexico bondsmen and their lobbyists won a concession from Sen. Peter Wirth (D-Santa Fe) and state Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Daniels, two of New Mexico's leading reform advocates.
At the bondsmens' urging, lawmakers added language that would let judges require that defendants prove they are poor before being released on no bond. That's sure to keep dollars in the pockets of the multi-million-dollar bail bonds industry.
Daniels, whose regular presence at the Roundhouse raised eyebrows, was roughed up by legislators and lobbyists who accused him of everything from logrolling to violating the Judicial Code of Conduct by pushing for change.
It was worth it, Daniels said on election night.
"I'd like to think people looked at it and saw that it made sense," he said. "That's refreshing to see in an election, isn't it? … Now the hard work starts: It's going to take changing some antiquated practices and old habits. It's more of a beginning than an end."
Lawmakers have estimated the new system will reduce the statewide pretrial jail population by 10 percent, saving taxpayers about $18 million annually. But the estimate is based other states' experiences. That's because there are no statewide data that show how many people are sitting in New Mexico's 28 county jails just because they can't afford bail.
During fiscal year 2015, two-thirds of the more than 8,000 people booked into the Santa Fe County jail were being held pretrial. How many of those might be freed—or jailed until trial without bail—with the constitutional change is unclear.
The amendment enjoyed broad support at first from groups as disparate as the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, the New Mexico District Attorneys' Association and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico. However, the ACLU and a defense lawyers group dropped their support after the bondsmens' legislative triumph, fearing the amendment could actually lead to more poor people languishing in jail before trial.
State bondsmens' groups agreed not to oppose the constitutional change, but most in the business never believed the system needed change.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misidentified Julie Vargas in the photograph.