Judges file lawsuit against state over governor's veto of raises

Updated: 04/15/2014 11:33 AM | Created: 04/14/2014 10:12 PM
By: Caleb James, KOB Eyewitness News 4

Governor Susana Martinez vetoed an item in the 2015 budget that would have given judges an eight percent raise.

On Monday, 10 judges announced they are suing the governor for making what they say is an unconstitutional call.

But judges aren't the only state workers who had raises nixed by Martinez.

"The court system suffers and slows down every time there's turnover on the bench," said Ray Vargas, the attorney suing Martinez.

Keeping judges around -- that's why attorney Vargas says New Mexicans should care that Martinez nixed the 8-percent pay raise for the robed men and women who decide on everything from speeding tickets to murder convictions.

"This is a recruitment and retention problem," said Vargas.

But the governor's office Monday says those judges wanted a raise 3 times the amount teachers will get this year.

Teachers will get three percent more in 2015 -- along with most other rank-and-file state workers.

But the governor not only vetoed an 8-percent raise for judges, but also wording that would require a $2,000-a-year raise for teachers who have been working in New Mexico for awhile -- "tier 2" and "tier 3" teachers currently making $40,000 to $50,000 a year.

Martinez said that raise should be up to individual districts.

"You can't compare apples to oranges," said Vargas.

Vargas says comparing raises for teachers and judges isn't fair -- because the governor has vetoed raises for judges two years in a row and it's time to catch up.

"The assistant county manager of Bernalillo county makes $23,000 a year more than the chief justice of our supreme court," said Vargas.

At the end of the day, the judges are suing for a reversal of the governor's veto and that will take place in the supreme court.

That venue means justices will be deciding whether to give themselves that 8 percent.

KOB Eyewitness News 4 asked Vargas if that's a conflict of interest. He said "no" and added federal judges sued over pay under similar circumstances -- a fight that went on for years.

A spokesperson for Gov. Martinez sent KOB a statement regarding the lawsuit. Below are excerpts from the statement:

Regarding the veto:

Judges want to give themselves a raise that would have amounted to nearly three times the raise that teachers received – in a year in which taxpayers are already being asked to contributed additional funds to shore up the judicial and magistrate retirement systems and fund five new judgeships throughout New Mexico. 

The Governor has been clear – had they requested a more modest increase in pay, along the same lines of the 3 percent raise provided to teachers and other state workers, it would have been approved.  8 percent in one year is dramatic and excessive. 

Regarding their arguments:

The argument that the Executive plays a role in setting the salaries of every state worker except judges is not only brazen, but quite arrogant.  Judges are not above the law, and their salaries are set through the legislative process as well – a process that includes the Governor. 

Regarding conflict of interest:

Justice Maes herself lobbied the Executive and Legislative branches on this exact issue during the legislative session, speaking on behalf of her colleagues on the court and judges throughout the state.

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