Federal order will divide magistrate elections

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer

Election procedures for Curry County’s magistrate court judges are about to be changed, leaving some with a bad taste in their mouths.

On August 18, the Curry County commission is holding a public hearing to explain creation of two magistrate divisions, replacing the at-large voting system.

However, the hearing is nothing but a formality as the county prepares to comply with a federal judge’s order, according to County Attorney Stephen Doerr.

Commissioners are under court-order to adopt an ordinance dividing magistrate elections into two divisions created on the basis of racial demographics. The judge’s order is in response to a 2005 lawsuit.

Citing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the lawsuit levied by residents Terry Martin and Johnny Chavez sued the Secretary of State, arguing the at-large system, in which candidates are drawn from the county as a whole, results in a racial bias by diluting the votes of minorities.

County Clerk Connie Jo Lyman said the issue is one that is approached statewide on a case-by-case basis.

“There are some other counties that have already districted, so we’re not creating new dimensions here,” she said.

Chavez said it was the third such lawsuit he was party too. Similar cases against the school board and city and county elected officials were won in years past.

“We’ve never had any minority representation on (the magistrate benches) the only way we’ve been able to accomplish that is through a lawsuit. It will give minority people a chance to get elected,” Chavez said. “Anything that’s not fair, I would address. I’ve always done that. I’m an old man already (at 67) and I’ve witnessed a lot of stuff that’s happened, a lot of changes for the good. I saw a lot of discrimination when I was a kid that I didn’t like.”

Last June, a federal judge issued an order for the county to create the divisions for the next election. It means the county must notify voters which division they will vote in for the June 2010 primary election.

Demographic surveys leading to creation of the new districts were commissioned by plaintiffs and the Secretary of State’s office. In the order, Judge Leroy Hanson cited agreement between parties — Chavez, Martin, New Mexico Speaker of the House Ben Lujan, Senate President Pro Tem Timothy Jennings and the state —as reason for his decision.

Lujan and Jennings could not be reached for comment.

Commissioner Caleb Chandler, though not a member of the commission at the time of the suit or subsequent ruling, said he has researched the issue and has questions about what took place and whether or not the community’s feelings on the issue were adequately represented, both by local and state law makers.

“I think it’s been handled in such a way that people in Curry County have had very little input,” he said.