Academic journal article Albany Law Review

Liberal Behind the Label?: A Comparative High Court Case Study of the New Mexico Supreme Court from 1997-2002

Academic journal article Albany Law Review

Liberal Behind the Label?: A Comparative High Court Case Study of the New Mexico Supreme Court from 1997-2002

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

How does one begin to uncover the individual judicial ideologies often masked in the opinions and decisions of a court? Identifying the underlying political and philosophical positions of the members of a state high court is essential to understanding that state's fundamental law and public policies. The means of obtaining insight into a court's "inner sanctum" is often only possible through a divided opinion, where the dissenter's strongly held personal views are individually expressed. (2)

Since divided opinions are revealing as to an individual's own perspectives, the focus of this high court study is centered on using these opinions to expose the sentiments of each Justice on the New Mexico Supreme Court. In turn, this will attempt to define the contemporary character of New Mexico's highest tribunal. In particular, this high court study addresses all of the divided constitutional decisions on New Mexico state constitutional issues set forth by the Supreme Court from 1997-2002. (3) As used here, constitutional issues are broadly viewed as including all those questions of criminal justice, civil rights, liberty interests, and public law. (4) This high court study does not focus on the legal result of the cases discussed. Rather, the focus is on the issue that divided the court. (5) In each case, the justices have been categorized as being either pro-prosecution or pro-defendant in criminal cases and either pro-individual or pro-governmental/corporate interests in civil cases. In the context of criminal cases, the justices have either protected individual liberty interests or compromised such interests in favor of achieving a just and orderly society. (6) Similarly, in civil cases, the justices have either advanced individual liberty interests or suppressed those interests in order to maintain the power of the government or large private interests. It is clear that the concurrence or dissent that favors the prosecution or defense--in the criminal context--is necessarily siding with either the government or the individual respectively. But, in civil matters, favoring the plaintiff does not necessarily mean justice in favor of the party seeking to promote individual interests. For example, the plaintiff in a civil case could be a large corporation or political agency seeking damages from an individual party. Therefore, it is important to note that the pro-individual category defined in this high court study means that justice favoring an individual interest has allotted more rights or liberties upon a private person's autonomy, while justice with a pro-government stance is concerned more with society as a whole and is willing to derogate individual freedoms to further society's interests.

II. THE COURT

The New Mexico Supreme Court is comprised of five justices elected for eight-year terms. (7) The Court is currently occupied exclusively by justices who are wholly affiliated with the Democratic Party. Such unanimity would implicate overall consonance on pivotal issues, yet the positions of these Justices have at times been multifarious. (8) Interestingly though, as would be anticipated, the Justices have delivered unanimous decisions on liberal issues that have invoked disagreement when resolved in other, more diverse jurisdictions. (9)

The New Mexico Supreme Court decided fifty-one appeals in which the justices were divided on an issue of public law between 1997-2002. Of these decisions, thirty-four of them were criminal matters, and eighteen were based on civil causes of action. (10)

A. Criminal Cases

Of the thirty-four divided criminal cases during the five-year period between 1997-2002, the New Mexico Supreme Court decided in favor of the prosecution in 59% of the cases and held in favor of the individual defendant in 41% of the cases. (11) Strong voting patterns are apparent when looking at the statistical data derived from these decisions. …

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