Justice Petra Jimenez Maes

SANTA FE, N.M. (WOMENSENEWS)–When Petra Jimenez Maes was named the nation’s first Hispanic woman chief justice of a state supreme court, she was well aware that the influence she would yield in New Mexico could break ground for women and ethnic minorities in the highest courts in other states.

“Now I feel that I have a bigger responsibility to really help all women, in particular minorities, to achieve their goalsand their desires,” Maes said after a speech at the New Mexico Children’s Law Institute conference in Albuquerque in January, soon after she was sworn in as chief justice on Jan. 10.

In New Mexico, the faces on the bench are changing intentionally. Newly-elected Gov. Bill Richardson recently rejected a list of possible candidates to fill vacant appellate court seats because he said the lists did not include any women. “I don’t believe our courts can adequately claim to represent the people of our community if the judges are not representative of that community,” Richardson said. He also instructed the search committees of these seats to “do their homework” before coming up with a new list of possible judges. On Jan 30, Richardson also appointed Edward L. Chavez to the state supreme court to fill the vacancy left by retiring Justice Gene Franchini.

Constance Belfiore, executive director of the National Association of Women Judges, said that Maes’ election is groundbreaking. But she says that the courts need still more diversity of experience before they will reach gender equality.

“What I think is happening is that the states’ highest courts are becoming more representative of the communities they serve,” she said. “This is something that has been long in coming. As we know, justice is more effective when it is truly reflective of the people it serves. This is another step towards equality, but we all know this is a long road.”

Maes Is One of Only a Few Women in Top Judicial Posts

As a woman and a Latina, Maes still is an anomaly among the nation’s top judges. Of the 52 chief justices in America’s highest state courts, Maes is one of 20 women. She is only one of two ethnic minority women in the states’ highest courts: Chief Judge Annice M. Wagner of the court of appeals in Washington, the District of Columbia’s highest court, is African American.

“There is still a wide gap in the courts and we do not see it closing anytime soon when it comes to these biases,” said Lynn Hecht Schafran, director of the National Judicial Education Program to Promote Equality for Women and Men in the Courts (NJEP) for the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Maes, a state district judge in Santa Fe for 17 years, was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1998 to fill a vacancy and won election last November to a full eight-year term. In New Mexico, justices can be appointed to fill a vacancy, but then must win a retention election in the next partisan election. She was elected to the chief justice post on Jan. 8 by fellow justices.

The five justices select one of their members to head the court every two years, in January. Typically, they rotate the job, giving it to the most senior justice who hasn’t yet held the post. New Mexico has had Hispanic male chief justices, but never a Hispanic woman.

According to the Hispanic National Bar Association, New Mexico also is the only state in which Hispanic men have been chief justices. Justice Patricio Serna is at least the fifth since New Mexico became a state in 1912.

Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, said few Hispanics have enough experience to be named to such high-ranking judicial positions.

“The legal profession has only fairly recently become accessible to Hispanics in general,” Vargas said. “In itself, having a Hispanic woman on the Supreme Court is an accomplishment–and being a chief justice is extraordinary.”

Maes addressed a law conference recently to help advance her latest project–a proposal for the judiciary to establish a children’s court division in every judicial district in the state. The goal of the new division is to get experienced and dedicated judges on the bench for cases involving children.

The single mother, who raised four children after her husband’s death in 1983, said children’s issues have always been important to her. She established a family court when she was a state district judge in Santa Fe.

Maes is the third woman to serve on the state Supreme Court, and the second female chief justice. Justice Pamela Minzner was the first, in 1999 and 2000.

An Albuquerque native, Maes was one of the first two Hispanic women to graduate from the University of New Mexico School of Law in 1973.

Barb Chavez is a freelance writer and full-time features reporter with the Albuquerque Journal in New Mexico.

For more information:

NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund:

National Association of Women Judges: