New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice Judith Nakamura, who helped guide the state’s court system through unforeseen challenges and novel solutions during the COVID-19 crisis, announced Tuesday she is retiring Aug. 1.
“In my years on the bench, I’ve always strived to not only make the best legal decisions possible but to improve people’s lives and advance the administration of justice,” Nakamura, 59, said in a statement released Tuesday.
Nakamura, elected by her fellow justices to serve as chief justice in 2017, joined the Supreme Court in 2015. The court will elect a new chief justice on July 15.
The chief justice presides over Supreme Court hearings and conferences, and has administrative authority over personnel, budgetary matters and general operations of all state courts.
Nakamura, a Republican, was appointed in 2015 by former Gov. Susana Martinez to replace Justice Richard Bosson and later was elected to finish out his eight-year term which would have ended Dec. 31.
She said Tuesday the end of the term seemed like a natural time to retire.
New Mexico’s system for selecting judges allows the governor to appoint replacements for vacant judgeships but requires them to win election to the post in the next general election.
Nakamura, an outspoken critic of the partisan election process for judges, said the timing of the election cycle played a part in her decision to step down now.
Nakamura said she told her colleagues in January she wanted to retire June 1, but when the COVID-19 crisis began developing in February, colleagues asked her to stay on to guide the state courts’ response to the pandemic, and she agreed.
The Supreme Court has set policy for the state courts during the crisis that allowed for some proceedings to continue telephonically and online in the face of restrictions on gatherings of large groups. Other matters were postponed.
Asked what she’d like to be remembered for on the court, Nakamura pointed to expansion of diversion and mental health courts, the creation of online dispute resolution programs and the extension of more court services to rural New Mexicans.
“We’ve worked really hard to make the courts more understandable and user friendly for the citizens,” Nakamura said, adding some of the initiatives she started had to be paused because of the pandemic. Nevertheless, they are “still underway” and her colleagues on the court have assured her they plan to follow through with them after her departure.
“I’ve done everything I think I can effectively do for the judiciary,” she said Tuesday.
Before joining the Supreme Court, Nakamura served nearly three years as a judge in the Second Judicial District Court and more than 14 years in Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court. She oversaw day-to-day operations of Metro Court as its chief judge from 2002-13, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts.
She said Tuesday she felt privileged to have been supported by voters over the years.
“I darn sure hope they feel like they’ve gotten their money’s worth,” she said.
Nakamura declined to comment specifically on national calls for sweeping judicial reform to address systemic biases against minorities, but she acknowledged multiple studies have shown minorities are treated more harshly in the justice system.
“There are so many studies that support that it would be ignorant to suggest otherwise,” she said, adding she wished there were more studies on the issue specific to New Mexico’s courts.
Nakamura said she intends to spend some time after retirement volunteering, possibly for animal rescue organizations.
“In my younger days, I wanted to be a veterinarian,” she said, adding that she’d been thinking about becoming a docent for the ABQ BioPark Zoo before the coronavirus pandemic struck.
But most of all, she said, she wants to spend more time pursuing her favorite pastime, flying hot air balloons.
“I just want to fly more,” she said, “and it seems like the best weather is always on the weekdays.”