Q&A with Gov. Susana Martinez

Gov. Susana Martinez has been on the job for nearly three months in New Mexico. The former district attorney for the 3rd Judicial District, which serves Dona Ana County, is the state’s first female governor and the first Hispanic female governor in the country.
She took time to answer a few questions following her speech at the Crime Victims’ Rights Week ceremony at the Clovis Civic Center.

Q: Do you think the presence of victims advocates is making a difference?

A: Absolutely. We didn’t have victims advocates 25 years ago when I started, and a couple of years later we did. What it has helped is explaining the system first. It is a complicated system, from arrest to bond to release on bond and preliminary hearing or grand jury hearings to arraignments, trials, witnesses, rescheduling. It’s cumbersome and frustrating, because people don’t always know why things aren’t happening faster — and when it’s not happening faster, what’s the reason for that. Victim advocates are well-versed in the criminal justice system, and how it does or doesn’t work. It’s what helps the victim get through the process. Before, they had to figure it out for themselves, or you hoped a lawyer would give them the information along the way. The advocates truly do hold their hand, sometimes physically in just giving them courage to speak, or in terms of explaining the process.

Q: You’ve taken a part in National Crime Victims’ Rights Week before, when you were a district attorney. How does your role change now that you’re in the governor’s office?

A: My role has changed in that I don’t just advocate for the citizens of Dona Ana County, but I advocate for the citizens of the entire state in many areas — not just the criminal justice system. I advocate for kids so they get a better education. I advocate for businesses that they be allowed to have more of their own money to grow their businesses. I advocate for public safety, particularly with New Mexico being a border state, and the fact that we give out driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. So, I see the role is different in that I’m not in the courtroom advocating, but I am at the Legislature advocating for improvements in many areas.

Q: Today, you spoke about victories in Katie’s Law and Brianna’s Law. Are there other enhancements to those laws, or other laws, that you’d like to pursue over the next few years regarding crime?

A: I’d love to change the fact we do not have a corruption unit. I’d like to have a corruption unit within the Department of Public Safety. That bill was introduced into the Legislature and it did not come out of the committees in order for me to have it heard on the floor.
It is extremely important we hold our public officials responsible, and that’s not happening right now to the full extent of the law. I’d like to see pensions lost for public officials who are convicted, and mandatory prison sentences for public officials who are convicted of violating the public trust. I’d like to see tough penalties for people who are convicted of DWI. There’s no difference between DWI Number 7 and DWI Number 10, or 20. The penalty is the same. It should increase every time you have a DWI. There needs to be a revision of the criminal justice sentencing schedule. It hasn’t been revised in a long time except for crimes against children. I think there are a lot of other crimes that the sentence is no longer sufficient. And the death penalty, I’d like to bring back the death penalty.

Q: How was your first legislative session?

A: It proved to be very helpful to reach across the aisle, to negotiate for good law to come out. We passed the reform on education in reference to grading schools. On the budget, we worked very hard to balance it and we worked with the Legislature on priorities. As a prosecutor, I learned to negotiate. That’s part of being a prosecutor. You may not negotiate to the lowest level. I’m used to negotiating to the highest level; I don’t give away the farm. It was exciting at times, frustrating at others, and at the end of the day I was glad when they all left (laughs).

Q: Were there any bills that were tough vetoes?

A: There were several bills they wanted passed to increase fees and costs, particularly in the courts. I couldn’t see us adding those fees and costs for a traffic citation without looking at overall costs of doing business in a court. We can’t do piecemeal, and we’re doing a lot of piecemealing.

Q: One of the bills you vetoed was Senate Bill 314, Sen. Clint Harden’s bill on autism education plan development. What was your reason for that veto?

A: We did a veto message with it. We spoke with the federal government in reference to funding … which is over $90 million a year. The definition (of autism spectrum disorder) was shared with them, (which) was included in the bill itself. They did not feel that it was consistent with the definition that the federal government requires in order to receive those funds. Before, you didn’t have to go to a psychiatrist or psychologist to get that medical diagnosis using the DSM (Diagnostics and Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders). The definition was changed in a way that put $90 million at risk.
There are 11 different parts of that bill we’re going to implement by rule to the education department without risking the $90 million.

Q: How does your background in legislation affect the way you approach the Legislature?

A: I have a unique experience in understanding how crime impacts families. Whenever I see a criminal bill that is being proposed, I also understand the challenges that have taken place in the district court, court of appeals and the Supreme Court, in (relation to) how you make that the strongest law without subjecting it to being reversed. Those are things I’m used to, but I’m also used to understanding that when there’s a vehicular homicide, for example, by a drunk driver, a possible six years is insignificant (compared to) the loss of a life. We’ve had it at that level for a while. Those are things I want to see in the future, in the overall picture of how we make laws tougher, especially in comparison to surrounding states.

— Compiled by Kevin Wilson