Maureen Sanders

Looking out over the landscape of Democrat women in politics, Emerge New Mexico is one of the strongest influencers for women running for office. When talking about Emerge New Mexico, it would be remiss to not mention civil rights attorney Maureen Sanders.

Emerge New Mexico

The local Emerge is part of a national movement. It is a political training program that identifies, trains and encourages Democrat women to run for office and get elected. There are 99 Emerge graduates currently serving in elected offices across the state. The most famous graduate of Emerge New Mexico is Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, who was in the class of 2007.

Sanders has been a part of Emerge since its beginnings, working on the ground with one-on-one political mentoring. This is what Sanders is best known for, according to attorney Kelly Stout Sanchez, past president of EmergeNM. “Although Maureen has influenced so many women with political ambitions through her work with EmergeNM as a board member and regular trainer, her impact and connection is most strongly felt by the countless hours she takes to speak with and counsel women on an individual level,” Stout Sanchez said.

The Mo Effect

Retired New Mexico Court of Appeals Judge Linda Vanzi agrees with Stout. Hon. Judge Vanzi was a student of Sanders at the University of New Mexico Law School and has worked with Sanders as part of the Emerge family since its inception. “One of the best things about Maureen’s mentorship is what I like to call the ‘Mo effect.’ Maureen gives countless hours mentoring women. And from everything I have seen, those women go on to give back in a myriad of ways to other women and to their communities.”

The Paper.: You have deep roots in New Mexico where you went to high school, taught school, then went to law school and set up an important practice. Other than the landmark Griego v Oliver case, guaranteeing same-sex marriage here in New Mexico, what other cases have you worked on to bring justice in an often-unjust world/court system?

Sanders: It is impossible to name one, so I’ll give you three: protecting those with developmental disabilities, ensuring health care for women and removing employment barriers for immigrants.

Certainly my 30-plus years representing The Arc of New Mexico in the Jackson [v Fort Stanson Hospital & Training School] case is right up there. Being involved in the transition from the state’s warehousing individuals with developmental disabilities to it providing community residential and support systems has been very meaningful. The focus in the litigation right now is on ensuring safety and appropriate medical services to the clients. In my view the state isn’t there yet, but it is a whole lot closer than the previous warehousing days.

Secondly, I would mention the NARAL case decided in 1998. I was an ACLU-NM cooperating attorney in the case. And a great team of national and local lawyers and a law student convinced the N.M. Supreme Court that New Mexico’s Equal Rights Amendment required the state to pay for medically necessary abortions for indigent women. The Court held that the ERA required the state to apply the same standard of medical necessity to men and women. 

Third, I have to mention one that brought tears to my eyes a few years ago. A DACAmented person had graduated from UNM Law School and had passed the bar exam. But her immigration status became a stumbling block to admission to the Bar because of a Supreme Court rule. Ultimately, the Supreme Court granted a motion for a conditional admit for her. Attending a private admission ceremony for her conducted in English and Spanish by Justice Chavez was a real high. Several of us are still trying to get the rule changed so that immigration status cannot be used as a sole basis for denial of admission. 

After law school you clerked for former Republican U.S. District Judge Edwin L. Mechem. Mechem also happens to be New Mexico’s only four-time governor who also appointed himself (legally under the 17th Amendment) to the U.S. Senate to fill a vacancy. He then went on to vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Amendment before leaving the Senate. How did this, in many ways a historic law clerk experience, influence you?

Judge Mechem was a Republican but not like the Republicans we see today. He was fiscally conservative, with a caring heart for all people, especially New Mexicans. I am not sure I even knew he voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Amendment while I was working for him in the early ’80s. What I do know is he was a strong believer in civil rights and respecting every person. I would say he taught me how to put civil rights law into practice to help those the law should protect. He was a strong advocate for holding government entities and individuals accountable for their actions. Many of his former law clerks continue that advocacy. The other thing is … I love every part of New Mexico particularly the north … and that I learned from him.  

What would you like to say to New Mexico women out there who may be thinking of running for school boards, municipal, state or other seats? 

Do it … but only if it is the right time for you in your personal and professional life. If the time is right, jump in and do it professionally and with integrity. And when you win and become a public official at whatever level … make your decisions based on what is right for your community/constituents—not based on what is easy or what might help you get elected again. Don’t surround yourself with “yes” people. Hang on to your moral compass. 

What are a couple favorite things these days?

I like baseball (St. Louis Cardinals) and mostly I like seeing my former students fighting with me for the civil rights of all of us and/or giving a voice to those not often heard.

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