Newly appointed state Court of Appeals Judge Jane B. Yohalem has never held public office before, but her work in New Mexico over the past three decades has already affected the way some of the state’s laws are applied.
The Santa Fe-based lawyer said about 100 cases she has handled over her long career have resulted in published decisions by the state Court of Appeals and Supreme Court that represented the first time those laws had been interpreted by the judiciary.
“I’ve always seen my appellate practice as a conversation with the appeals courts about what the law is and seen it almost as a partnership in developing the laws in New Mexico,” she said Friday.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham appointed Yohalem to the Court of Appeals earlier this month to fill a vacancy created by the recent retirement of Judge Linda Vanzi. Yohalem will join seven other women and two men on the 10-member court that became majority female for the first time during the last election cycle, but she’ll have to win the November general election to remain on the bench.
Albuquerque-based lawyer Thomas Montoya said the state Republican Party has nominated him to run against Yohalem in November, but the secretary of state’s website did not list him as a candidate Friday.
Yohalem, 70, was born in New Jersey and spent a year at Tufts University in Massachusetts before earning a bachelor’s degree in English from Yale University in 1972. She obtained her law degree from Columbia University in 1975.
Early in her career, Yohalem worked in Washington, D.C., at several public interest law firms where she was involved in drafting legislation advocating for the rights of special-education students and people with disabilities.
Since coming to New Mexico 34 years ago, she worked at several private law firms before opening her own practice in 1996. She has specialized in appellate law and complex civil litigation since then while also working as a hearing officer deciding appeals in disability education cases for about 20 years.
Over the past several decades, Yohalem has represented hundreds of indigent parents appealing the termination of their parental rights and has worked to improve procedures in Children’s Court. She also attempted to “address discrimination in the child protective services system,” where Black children are three times more likely to be taken into custody by the state, she said.
In 2017, Yohalem represented the Legislative Council Service against then-Gov. Susana Martinez, who had vetoed 10 bills passed by the Legislature without giving a reason.
“That went to the New Mexico Supreme Court, and the court unanimously decided those vetoes were unconstitutional and those bills became law,” she said, noting she quoted James Madison and Alexander Hamilton in her briefs in the case — drawing on arguments that went all the way back to the pre-Revolutionary War era when colonists objected to King George III quashing bills that had been passed by colonial legislatures.
A Democrat, Yohalem has never before run for office. For a time, she collected signatures to get on the primary ballot for a seat on the Court of Appeals before eventually deciding to withdraw. She said she enjoyed talking to people during that process — though much about campaigning has changed since then because of COVID-19.
Yohalem said her long road to the bench has been eventful, particularly since a legal career once seemed far away to her as a young woman.
“I grew up in a rural small town and never met a lawyer until I was in high school,” she said. “There was only one in town, and at that point there were no women who were lawyers. It wasn’t something I had even thought about.”
She said she was “shocked” when the attorney she met told her she should consider the profession because rural areas suffered from a lack of lawyers.
“That put the idea in my head,” she said, “and by the time I was done with college, it suddenly became possible for women to go to law school.”
Yohalem said she had always been fascinated with the Constitution and saw the law as a way to make a difference in issues that were important to society.
“So that’s what I did,” she said.