Accountability on the Bench: Unveiling Corruption or just Incompetence in Judicial Appointments, Part 2

June 26, 2024


Ramona Goolsby


Third District Court, Las Cruces: Shifting Landscape Amidst New Appointment’s History of Political Activism.

The Third Judicial District Court of Dona Ana County continues to face scrutiny, not only from the Supreme Court, but also from observers, due to inadequate vetting of past judicial appointments. This lack of thorough vetting ultimately led to Judge Mark Standridge’s resignation from his seat amid accusations of nepotism, an issue previously reported by the Estancia News. Further investigation into the background of Standridge’s replacement, Rebecca Duffin, reveals a history of partisan activism, raising serious questions about whether the Judicial Nominating Commission is truly committed to protecting the integrity of the bench by selecting qualified, impartial candidates.

Judge Rebecca Duffin, presides over the Third Judicial District since Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham appointed her on January 29, 2024. Duffin previously served as a Magistrate Judge in Dona Ana, for 5 years. She was first elected in 2018 after running unopposed for an open seat and reelected in 2022 after running unopposed for the second time. Prior to her judicial roles, she served in the Third Judicial District Attorney’s office as an Assistant District Attorney starting in 2012.

The Magistrate Court Judge Duffin presided over small civil and minor criminal cases and operates without formal records. This contrasts with District Courts, which adjudicate a broader range of serious cases, maintain detailed records, and demand higher judicial standards and expertise. The transition from Magistrate to District Court not only escalates the complexity of cases, but also the scrutiny judges face.

Judge Duffin’s academic background includes a law degree from Chapman University, Dale E. Fowler School of Law obtained in 2009. Her early legal experiences were shaped by roles such as a legal education officer for Peace over Violence a social justice organization, and a certified law clerk for the Orange County District Attorney’s Office between 2008 and 2009.

In February 2023, following the censure and retirement of Judge Mary Rosner, Duffin was among seven applicants for Rosner’s vacant position. Ultimately, Mark Standridge secured the appointment but resigned within months when it was discovered that Standridge’s wife worked in the same judicial district. Duffin was then appointed to the position but leaving a lingering question about why the position was not placed on the primary ballot instead of appointing Duffin.

Continued Secrecy in the Process

The operations of the Judicial Nominating Commission have been marked by a troubling lack of transparency, casting a long shadow over the integrity of the judicial appointment process. Estancia News reached out to the Third Judicial Nominating Commission for answers about the process and if the commission was aware of the affiliation Judge Duffin has with a progressive political organization. The only response received was “no comment”.

On January 12, 2024, the commission announced three candidates for the governor’s consideration, Rebecca Duffin, Isabel Jerabek, and Jeanne Quintero. However, there were four applicants for the position. The name of the fourth candidate was not disclosed.

The application process is managed by the Judicial Selection Committee. The application for consideration contains detailed questions, probing into aspects such as marital status and the spouse’s occupation. Intriguingly, if the committee had actually investigated these questions, the fiasco surrounding Mark Standridge’s appointment and resignation could have been avoided if he had disclosed that he was seeking a position in a judicial district where his wife was already employed.

The vetting process also is intended to probe deeply into candidates’ legal experience, public offices held, and affiliations with professional and civic organizations over the last ten years. The questions also are intended to uncover associations that could lead to conflicts of interest so they can be prevented. For example, Question 41 asks, “Do you foresee any conflicts under the New Mexico Code of Judicial Conduct that might arise regularly? If so, please explain how you would address these conflicts.”

Getting answers to these questions is crucial for revealing any potential biases or conflicts of interest that could influence a judge’s impartiality. But the application process’s opacity raises significant concerns about its efficacy.

For instance, the public has a right to know whether Judge Duffin disclosed her association with a partisan organization called Emerge New Mexico and their “Gavel In” judiciary program. Emerge is a 527 political organization aimed at increasing the number of Democrat women in public office. A 527 organization is a type of tax-exempt organization created to influence the selection, nomination, election, appointment, or defeat of candidates to federal, state, or local office.

Perhaps the most alarming thing about Duffin’s association with Emerge is that according to their website, participants must be registered Democrats and pledge to support the Democrat Party platform to participate.

The crucial question is whether a judge endorsing the Democrat Party platform in exchange for an organization’s help in attaining office, will supersede a judge’s duty to apply the law impartially as it is written, and not according to a political party’s ideology. This pledge signed by Emerge candidates is tantamount to a contract, which is likely to be at odds with their oath of office and established judicial standards.

Leanna Derrick, a researcher and candidate for Representative District 19, has been sounding the alarm on the influence of Emerge alumni in the legislative process. Her research identifies a concerning pattern linking Emerge alumni to radical progressive legislative policies. This pattern extends to the judiciary, suggesting a pervasive influence of Emerge in blurring the lines between separation of powers in these critical areas of government.

Duffin’s association with this clearly progressive partisan organization is troubling when it comes to her current judicial role as it can be viewed by the public as a hindrance to her ability to decide cases according to the law as it is written in an impartial manner independent from her personal politics.

The Estancia News has reached out to Emerge’s leadership to understand what impacts they intend to have on the judiciary, but our questions remain unanswered.

The judicial application and selection process seems to lack the rigor necessary to ensure that such affiliations are adequately scrutinized and disclosed to the public. This gap highlights a critical area where transparency is not just a procedural formality but a necessity to maintain public trust in the judiciary’s impartiality.

These shortcomings raise critical concerns: What other oversights might have occurred within the Judicial Selection Committee’s review process? Furthermore, are there pertinent details that Judge Duffin may have omitted from her disclosures? These questions underscore the opacity surrounding the committee’s operations and the pressing need for greater transparency.

We reached out to Judge Duffin but have not received a response as of publication. We also attempted to reach out to the Judicial Standards Commission for comment by phone but there was no answer. They do not allow messages to be left and do not provide an email address.

Emerging Concerns over Conflicts of Interest

In our constitutional republic, the separation of powers is designed to ensure no single branch exceeds its mandate. The legislature makes laws, the executive enforces them, and the judiciary checks their constitutionality and the actions of other branches. This balance is crucial, and the judiciary must remain free from overt political biases to function effectively.

The deeper we delve into the Third Judicial District and the complexities surrounding judicial appointments, violations of constitutional rights, and the opaque nature of the judiciary, the more questions and concerns arise. The judicial system, intended as the embodiment of justice, now faces widespread doubt in the judicial systems ability to live up to the mantra “no one is above the law.” With Lady Justice’s blindfold seemingly raised on the left side, the connections between political organizations and judicial members in New Mexico’s courts increase doubt that fairness still exists in New Mexico’s judiciary.

Our investigation will continue in Part 3. Stay tuned.

Written by Ramona Goolsby