- Associated Press - Monday, April 14, 2014

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - A group of New Mexico judges sued Gov. Susana Martinez on Monday in an effort to overturn a veto that denied them an 8 percent pay raise, an increase the governor says too far eclipsed those given to other state employees like teachers.

A coalition of judicial associations, individual judges and two state senators filed the lawsuit in New Mexico Supreme Court to reverse the governor’s line-item veto.

The Republican governor “exceeded the constitutional authority granted to her … in vetoing judicial salaries and only a portion of the money appropriated for those salaries,” the lawsuit says.

It claims that because the Legislature has the authority to set judges’ pay, which it did in the state budget, the veto means those on the bench can’t receive any salary next year. It’s a charge the governor’s office strongly disputes.

Martinez said last month she vetoed the raise because she felt an 8 percent increase was too much.

“I could have supported a 3 percent salary increase like all other employees,” Martinez said at the signing of the $6 billion state budget. “But the way it was written, they gave me two choices - no increase or an 8 percent increase. And teachers were only getting a 3 percent increase. Teachers don’t make anywhere near what a judge makes.”

Attorney Ray Vargas, who is representing the judges, said Martinez “ignored the system of checks and balances” when she vetoed the raises for judges.

“The New Mexico Constitution grants specific powers to each of the three co-equal branches of government. In our Constitution, it is solely up to the Legislature to set judicial pay, which it did,” Vargas said.

Under the proposed 8 percent increase, the salary of the chief justice of the state Supreme Court would have been $136,921. Other justices would have received $134,921, and district court judges would have earned $121,767.

The governor’s office said Martinez has the right to veto any line-item, although such vetoes have been challenged in court and can be overturned if deemed “unworkable.”

Martinez spokesman Enrique C. Knell said it was “quite arrogant” for judges to argue the state’s executive branch couldn’t set salaries for judges but could for other state workers.

“Judges want to give themselves a raise that would have amounted to nearly three times the raise that teachers received,” Knell said in a statement. “Taxpayers are already being asked to (contribute) additional funds to shore up the judicial and magistrate retirement systems and fund five new judgeships throughout New Mexico.”

Among those suing Martinez are state Sens. George Munoz, D-Gallup, and Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, members of the Senate Finance Committee and critics of the governor.

During the session, judges lobbied state lawmakers and Martinez for the proposed salary increase. Among those who lobbied for the increase, the governor’s office said, were former New Mexico Chief Justice Petra Jimenez Maes, who’s still a state justice.

Maes did not immediately return a phone message from The Associated Press.


Follow Russell Contreras on Twitter at https://twitter.com/russcontreras.

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