New Mexico Judiciary Establishes Rural Clerkship Program

By Jack Rodgers | January 19, 2024, 4:54 PM EST ·

The New Mexico Judiciary is launching a Rural Justice Initiative Clerkship Program, which creates four paid clerk positions for attorneys who will work with state judicial district chief judges.

Clerks will perform legal research and analysis, help draft documents and work on assigned cases, according to the Thursday announcement. The positions will be in Farmington, Aztec or Gallup, Clovis and Portales, according to the announcement.

Applications are due to the court by March 1, and the attorneys selected are expected to commit to two years in the role, which comes with a $70,000 annual salary, including full benefits.

Eleventh Judicial District Chief Judge Curtis R. Gurley's district encompasses San Juan and McKinley counties. In a statement Thursday, he said there aren't enough lawyers in either county to meet the need for legal services. Two of the four clerks will work under Judge Gurley.

"There are roughly 135 active lawyers in my district for the more than 190,000 people living there," said Judge Gurley. "Out of more than 7,300 attorneys in the state, it's just not enough to fill people's legal needs."

The shortage of legal practitioners is a statewide issue in New Mexico. In Curry and Roosevelt counties — which make up the state's Ninth Judicial District and have about 66,000 residents — there are fewer than 60 lawyers, according to the State Bar of New Mexico.

Chief Judge Donna J. Mowrer, who will lead the clerkship program in the Ninth Judicial District and has lived in eastern New Mexico since 1970, told Law360 Pulse in an interview Friday that it had been the state Supreme Court's mission to increase attorney presence in rural areas since 2019.

Judge Mowrer said she had written two separate reports for the state Supreme Court centered on increasing attorney presence in New Mexico. In her 2021 report, Judge Mowrer listed only 5,557 active attorneys who were based in one of New Mexico's 33 counties. Five of those counties have fewer than 10 attorneys, and six New Mexico counties had 20 or fewer practicing attorneys in 2021.

"There were three counties that had no attorneys listed as living in that county," Judge Mowrer said. "There are other counties. … that have maybe one attorney with an address in that county, but that attorney works for a government agency, which prohibits them from taking civil legal cases."

She noted that the Legal Aid Society's Justice Gap research showed an average of one attorney for every 429 U.S. residents in 2009. She contrasted that with the 57 attorneys in her district of 75,903 residents — one attorney for every 1,331. 

The issue isn't specific to New Mexico. Small rural towns throughout America face similar shortages. According to the most recent Legal Services Corporation Justice Gap Study, in 2021, 77% of rural households had one or more legal matters, and low-income Americans didn't receive legal help for 92% of their substantial civil legal issues.

Judge Mowrer said she came to the state in second grade while her father was stationed at Cannon Air Force Base. She loved the area, and left only briefly to earn her degree at the University of New Mexico, she said, and "made it a conscious choice to stay," in the area.

"One of the greatest benefits I see living in a smaller community is the collegiality of everyone," Judge Mowrer said. "The fantastic thing, … that can happen with these clerks is they'll get the opportunity to meet every attorney from the area that practices in the courts, they'll see a variety of issues, and they'll have that network built when they leave the clerkship and hopefully decide to stay in our community."

New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice C. Shannon Bacon said in a statement that the program would address "the dire need for lawyers in rural areas."

"We're creating career opportunities for new lawyers who can provide more access to justice in our rural parts of the state," Justice Bacon said.

--Additional reporting by Jack Karp. Editing by Linda Voorhis. 

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