Magistrate voting system debated

By Tonya Garner: CNJ staff writer

A yellow and green map had some citizens seeing red at Tuesday’s Curry County Commission meeting.

The map depicted a proposed plan to change the Curry County Magistrate Court voting system, which attorneys for two county residents say is racially biased, from at-large to two districts.

Clovis residents Terry Martin and Johnny Chavez filed a joint lawsuit in May against New Mexico Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron, overseer of state elections, to change the current system.

Chavez is a former county commissioner who plans to run for magistrate judge in the upcoming election.

The purpose of the meeting was to inform the Commission and the public on the lawsuit.

According to the plaintiff’s attorney, Manuel Lopez, at-large systems in Eddy, Chavez, San Juan and Lea counties were changed through similar litigation. Lopez told the commissioners the redistricting idea is a “good plan” and complies with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

A trial for a federal lawsuit is scheduled for 2007, according to the county’s attorney, Stephen Doerr.

Doerr described the federal lawsuit as a civil rights action being brought about because the plaintiffs believe the current at-large voting system results in a dilution of the Hispanic and black votes.

Speaking during the public hearing portion of the county meeting, Deputy District Attorney Fred Van Soelen vehemently expressed disapproval of the lawsuit.

“I’m not a fan of electing judges,” Van Soelen said. “Judges do not represent people. … They are there to fairly interpret the law.”

Van Soelen said under the new plan, judges would represent a district, which is “undemocratic.”

Van Soelen said there has been no pattern of discrimination in Clovis where elections are concerned.

“We currently have three Hispanic city commissioners,” Van Soelen said, “and Commissioner Juan Garza lives in a district where he is vastly outnumbered by Anglos.”

Sheriff Roger Hatcher, who appeared before the commission as a private citizen, also spoke against changing the system.

“This is a voter apathy issue,” Hatcher said, “not a discrimination issue.” Hatcher, who is running for magistrate judge, said redistricting Curry County would not be “a fix for racial bias.”

Hatcher said the county is currently well-represented by gender and ethnicity.

Curry County resident Angelina Baca Rodriguez, who said she was standing before the commission as a double minority, weighed in as a supporter of the lawsuit.

“I am both an Hispanic and a woman,” Rodriguez said, “and I take offense that electing a minority (as magistrate judge) would create biasness.”

An attorney, Baca Rodriguez referred to the opposition of the redistricting as “unfair and ridiculous.” The lawyer, who was previously defeated in a run for magistrate judge, said redistricting is needed for fair minority representation.

Also discussed at Tuesday’s meeting:

• Curry County Manager Dick Smith reported the official groundbreaking for the Special Events Center is planned for 10:30 a.m. April 29.

• Road Superintendent Danny Davis reported the groundbreaking for the State Road 467 railroad overpass is scheduled for June 27.