Governor’s appointment shifts New Mexico Supreme Court partisan balance

New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) appointed Julie Vargas (D) to the New Mexico Supreme Court on December 19, 2020. Vargas succeeds Justice Judith Nakamura (R) who retired on Dec. 1. Vargas was Gov. Lujan Grisham’s third nominee to the five-member supreme court. Her appointment shifted the partisan balance on the New Mexico Supreme Court from four Democrat justices and one Republican justice to a court of five Democrat justices.

Under New Mexico law, state supreme court vacancies are filled through assisted gubernatorial appointment, where the governor selects a nominee based on recommendations from a judicial nominating commission. Justices appointed by the governor must stand in a partisan election in the next election cycle to remain on the court.

New Mexico is one of seven states that use partisan elections to select state supreme court justices for either initial or subsequent terms. Of those seven states, four (Illinois, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania) have a Democrat majority while three (Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas) have a Republican majority on the court.

Julie Vargas was a judge on the New Mexico Court of Appeals. She was elected to this position in a partisan election on November 8, 2016, defeating 2016 appointee incumbent Judge Stephen French (R).

Nakamura planned to retire on August 1, but she postponed the retirement date in June. Governor Susana Martinez (R) appointed Nakamura to the court on November 12, 2015, to fill a vacancy. Nakamura was elected on November 8, 2016, to the unexpired term of her predecessor. Nakamura served as chief justice from 2017 to 2020.

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