SANTA FE (AP) - An independent commission on Tuesday recommended a pair of veteran Albuquerque lawyers, a Democrat and a Republican, to GOP Gov. Susana Martinez for possible appointment to the New Mexico Supreme Court for what could be a very short tenure.
The judicial nominating commission unanimously recommended former Justice Paul Kennedy, a Republican who is a prominent criminal defense lawyer, and career prosecutor Steven Suttle, a Democrat who worked for 14 years in the attorney general's office before retiring in 2010.
Suttle also served as an elected district attorney in Oklahoma before moving to New Mexico to become a prosecutor in the district attorney's office in Albuquerque in 1991.
They were the only applicants for a court vacancy created by the retirement of Justice Patricio Serna, who is retiring at the end of the month after serving 16 years on the five-member court. The commission made its recommendations after interviewing the two lawyers.
This is the first opportunity for Martinez, a former prosecutor, to name someone to the state's highest court and her nominee will serve until the winner of the November general election takes over.
If the governor picks Kennedy, however, it's possible he could have a longer tenure because he plans to seek the GOP nomination for the Supreme Court position.
Because the court vacancy came after New Mexico's June primary election, state political parties will select the nominees for the general election ballot.
Suttle said he isn't vying for the Democratic nomination because he wanted the governor and the commission to have an option for filling the vacancy without giving one of the general election candidates the advantage of running as an incumbent.
"I have no agenda here. I have no aspirations to run for this seat. I have no aspirations to ever seek this seat in the future. I have no aspirations to run for any public office or go back into private practice," Suttle told the commission.
He described himself as a "strict constructionist" of the Constitution, saying he agreed with the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black that the text of the Constitution was "first and foremost" in judicial interpretations to decide questions of law.
Kennedy is familiar with the prospect of an interim judicial appointment. He served on the Supreme Court from September 2002 until late December of that year after the winner of the general election - current Justice Richard Bosson - took office.
Kennedy was not on the ballot in 2002, and was appointed by then-GOP Gov. Gary Johnson to fill a vacancy caused a justice's retirement.
"I think I am probably a better candidate today than I was 10 years ago only because I've had 10 years ... of more litigation and seen a wider variety of cases" in trial and appellate courts, Kennedy told the commission.
Kennedy also has ties to the governor. He served as the chief legal counsel for the governor's transition committee after her election in 2010.
Kennedy also represented the governor in redistricting lawsuits over the boundaries of political districts for the Legislature, Congress and a state regulatory agency.
Kennedy told the commission he would recuse himself - if he becomes a member of the court - from participating in cases involving the governor that relate to "anything I've touched, anything I've worked on even as a consultant ... anything I've been in contact with the governor's general counsel."
Under the state Constitution, an appointed judge is supposed to face a partisan election in the next general election. However, the timing of Serna's retirement means the political parties rather than GOP and Democratic primary voters will decide who's on the ballot in November.
The winner of the general election will serve the remainder of Serna's term, which runs through 2016, and then will be subject to a nonpartisan retention election every eight years.
At least five Democrats have said they are seeking the party's nomination when the state central committee meets Aug. 25: Chief District Judge Barbara Vigil in Santa Fe; former U.S. Attorney John Kelly; Workers' Compensation Administration Judge Victor Lopez; Cate Stetson, a Democratic activist from Albuquerque with a background in Indian law; and Michelle Hernandez, a specialist in health care law with an Albuquerque law firm.
If Kennedy is appointed by the governor, he will have a big advantage in seeking the GOP nomination at a party meeting on Sept. 8.
However, no Republican has won election to the Supreme Court since 1980 although Republicans have been elected to the state Court of Appeals. Democrats hold a 1.5-to-1 advantage in voter registration in New Mexico.
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