Lea County Sheriff Corey Helton is facing removal from the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission after he appeared in a TV ad with Republican gubernatorial candidate Mark Ronchetti.
In the ad, Ronchetti is standing alongside four New Mexico sheriffs, one of those being Helton, and criticized Democrat Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s handling of crime related issues, including Grisham’s administration’s decision to release “low risk” inmates from state prisons. Furthermore, Ronchetti’s ad accused Grisham of appointing “soft on crime” judges.
All four of the sheriff’s seen in the ad are Republicans: Valencia County Sheriff Denise Vigil, Lea County Sheriff Corey Helton, Otero County Sheriff David Black, and San Juan County Shane Ferrari.
On Nov. 18, an order to show cause was filed in the Supreme Court of New Mexico.
The order stems from a letter sent to Chief Justice Bacon, a Democrat, by the District and Metropolitan Court Judges Association Board of Directors, and says the JPEC has “concerns for what may be malfeasance by Corey M. Helton, JPEC Commissioner.”
The action stems from Helton’s appearance in the TV ad and the accusation that Helton “may have shown a clear bias against judges, and frankly any judge whom he feels is ‘soft on crime.’”
“He may have a duty to recuse himself from the evaluation of any judge standing for retention, particularly those judges appointed recently by our sitting governor. He may also have rendered himself unfit to fill the duties as commissioner of JPEC. The New Mexico judiciary deserves to be evaluated by impartial commissioners, not by commissioners who feel it is their right to unabashedly disparage judges on television. The central goal of the judicial retention and selection process is to remove politics from the judiciary,” the letter states.
Helton, on the other hand, says the call for his removal is purely a political move.
“It definitely is,” he said about the move being a political witch hunt. “I think the worst that could happen with that is the Supreme Court would remove me from that panel. I feel that it’s all political and this commission is supposed to be bipartisan.
“We’ll see what the Supreme Court says after we file our response.”
Helton told the News-Sun he was surprised at the blatant act of what appears to be political retaliation.
“It was a shock to me,” Helton said. “It’s from a commercial ad I did for Mark Ronchetti where we accused the governor of appointing soft on crime judges. I guess with that comment, the commission didn’t feel that I could be fair and impartial in the future judge evaluations. I don’t know what they’re thinking.
“It kind of upsets me that they would go to this length because I feel that if the shoe was on the other foot, as far as the parties we’re talking about, I don’t think we’d be in this.
Helton explained how the commission is supposed to be bipartisan.
“The legislature back in the 90s set this commission up and it’s supposed to be bipartisan. I don’t feel they’re being bipartisan. I feel that they’re one sided. It’s not right,” he said.
In 1990, the JPEC was created after New Mexico voters approved a constitutional amendment for a merit selection process for nominating appellate, district, and metropolitan judges. The amendment requires judges who have previously been elected in a partisan election to stand for retention in order to retain office.
The letter does not go into detail as to what the justices discussed during the Aug. 18 board meeting nor does the letter state what sparked the order to show cause other then Helton’s appearance in the ad against the governor.
“The order is pretty straight forward and speaks for itself,” Public Information Officer for the NM Administrative Office of the Courts Barry Massey told the News-Sun. “The order for itself, explains what’s going on… Nobody is being sanctioned. The court is just requiring (Helton) to submit a response to the court. There is no action being taken against him yet. The letter is directed at him as a member of the commission whose responsibility is to carry out their duties on that commission.”
According to Section E of Article 2 of the Rules governing the JPEC the reasons for removal for cause are spelled out:
E. Removal for cause. The Supreme Court may remove any member of the commission for cause. “Cause” means any malfeasance or nonfeasance in carrying out the commissioner’s official duties and responsibilities, including improper disclosure of confidential information, failure to disclose any basis for recusal or to recuse when appropriate, advocating for or against the retention of any particular judge outside of commission deliberations or failure to attend to the duties and responsibilities of the commission.