Longtime appellate judge retiring; Martinez to pick replacement

Jim Wechsler

Jim Wechsler, the longest-serving judge on the New Mexico Court of Appeals, said he will retire July 31 after more than 22 years, ending what the state Administrative Office of the Courts says is the second-longest tenure of any appellate judge in state history.

The vacancy created by his retirement will give Gov. Susana Martinez the opportunity to make her third appointment to the 10-member court, which reviews appeals in nearly all types of cases. Exceptions include criminal cases involving sentences of life imprisonment and appeals from the Public Regulation Commission.

Wechsler, 72, who was appointed to the court by then-Gov. Bruce King in 1994, was elected to the post in 1996 and was retained by voters in retention elections in 1998, 2006 and 2014.

“He has been one of the best, most stable, smart colleagues we’ve ever had on the court,” Court of Appeals Chief Judge Linda Vanzi said Thursday. “It’s going to be a huge loss for the courts for him to be retiring. He’s just been an anchor here. … I really think he is one of the most respected judges in the state.”

She lauded Wechsler’s expertise in water law, including presiding over several stream adjudications, as well as his work heading the judiciary’s ethics advisory committee.

Wechsler for many years also served on the judiciary’s budget committee, where retired state Supreme Court Justice Patricio Serna said he did “a yeoman’s job on the budget for the Court of Appeals and the judiciary as a whole.”

Serna said he and Wechsler also helped create the state Tribal Judicial Consortium to promote relationships between the state judiciary and tribal court judges.

Serna said they became close friends when the two judges campaigned across the state as Democratic candidates in 1996.

Serna laughed when he recalled how he coached Wechsler before an appearance in Mora, advising him to use a Spanish phrase at the end of his speech to connect with voters in the area. Serna said he told Wechsler to say, “Les pido por su apoyo y sus votos” — meaning “I ask for your support and your votes” — but Wechsler garbled the phrase, saying pollo instead of apoyo and botas instead of votos, essentially asking the voters for their chickens and boots.

“His wife is from Mora,” Serna said. “He’s loved over there. But we still laugh about that.”

Wechsler is originally from New York, where he received his undergraduate and law degrees from New York University.

He came to New Mexico in 1970, and in his early years in the state worked for DNA Peoples Legal Services, which was created to provide legal services for people on the Navajo Nation. He served as an assistant attorney general from 1976-83, representing the state in prosecuting anti-trust and economic crime cases and in public utility rate-making proceedings. From 1983 until his appointment to the court, he was engaged in private practice, with a focus on civil and administrative litigation.

Wechsler said Thursday that no single case during his career stands out as more important or interesting than the others. “You are working to resolve issues that are important to people,” he said. “They really are all interesting. And in the harder cases, you just dig deeper and the issues become clearer.”

The state Judicial Nominating Commission will meet Aug. 30 in Santa Fe to consider potential replacements for Wechsler.

After interviewing applicants in a public proceeding, the commission will send a list of nominees to the governor, who will have 30 days to appoint someone to fill Wechsler’s post until the 2018 general election, when voters will decide whether to retain the judge. The replacement judge will then stand for retention in 2022 — when Wechsler’s term would have ended — and every eight years thereafter.

Appeals court judges previously appointed by Martinez include Henry “Hank” Bohnoff, named in January to fill a vacancy created by the retirement of Judge Roderick T. Kennedy. She tapped Stephen French in February to fill a vacancy created by the retirement of Judge Cynthia Fry.

The only judge who served longer than Wechsler on the state Court of Appeals is Judge A. Joseph Alarid, who spent 25 years on the appellate bench before he retired in 2008.

Contact Phaedra Haywood at 505-986-3068 or phaywood@sfnewmexican.com. Follow her on Twitter @phaedraann.