Signs point to trouble for local judges

By Darrell Todd Maurina

Both Curry County magistrate judges and a retired district judge have campaign signs in their yards supporting 9th Judicial District Attorney candidate Matt Chandler, despite prohibitions on political activity by New Mexico judges.
All three judges — magistrate judges Richard Hollis and Douglas Miller, and retired District Judge Bill Bonem, who still hears some cases — say the signs were put up by their wives.
The signs in the yards of Hollis and Miller on Saturday had nearby disclaimers reading the campaign material was erected solely by the wives.
The state’s judicial code says judges may not “publicly endorse or publicly oppose a candidate for public office through the news media or in campaign literature.”
Judge Miller said the sign in his family’s yard was placed by his wife.
“I never authorized anyone to put up any signs and would not do so; I have never come out in favor of one candidate or the other,” Miller said. “As a U.S. citizen she has the right to put up signs in her yard. I can’t tell her what to do and not to do.”
Bonem, who lives in Portales, said he’s not sure whether he could become involved in political activity. But it was his wife who decided to support Chandler in his bid to unseat incumbent Brett Carter.
“When my husband was an elected official I gave up some of my citizen’s rights so as not to cause him any problems,” said Merriellen Bonem. “While there is no law against a wife being involved in campaigns, I just thought it made it easier for him if I didn’t. Now I get involved when I feel very strongly about things.”
Judge Hollis did not return telephone calls on Friday or Saturday. An e-mail purportedly from Hollis’ wife was sent to the newspaper last week, but attempts to verify the e-mailed information came from Jennifer Hollis were not successful.
New Mexico does not have a history of court decisions interpreting whether judges’ spouses may place campaign signs outside a jointly owned marital home, officials with the New Mexico Bar Association and the New Mexico Supreme Court said on Friday.
An associate librarian at the State Supreme Court Law Library provided American Judicature Society standards for federal judges:
“The committee for federal judges suggested a judge try to dissuade the judge’s spouse from posting a political candidate’s sign at the marital home,” according to an AJS compilation of judicial rules. “However, recognizing that a judge might fail in that attempt, the committee advised a judge to ‘make reasonable efforts to disassociate himself or herself from the sign (e.g., by posting a disclaimer, listing spouse’s name only on the sign, or placing the sign on the spouse’s automobile which judge would not drive.)’”
A reporter told Miller and Bonem about the AJS report on Friday and disclaimer signs appeared in Miller’s and Hollis’ yards by Saturday afternoon.
The sign in Hollis’ yard reads: “This Chandler sign is displayed solely by Jennifer Hollis.”
Bonem said many years ago he had asked the New Mexico judicial ethics committee for a ruling on whether his wife could be involved in the Democratic Women’s Club in Portales, but didn’t have a copy of that ruling available.
“I received a reply essentially stating that the restrictions on participation in campaigns are restrictions on the judge and not on the spouse,” Bonem said.