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Tierna Unruh-Enos is the managing editor and associate publisher at The Paper.

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Judge Cindy Leos feels like New Mexico’s courts are on the precipice of creating something groundbreaking that will address gender and racial equity within the courts. Just two weeks ago, the state’s Supreme Court held its first-ever meeting of the Commission on Equity and Justice. The Commission was created last fall to address gender and racial iniquity in the court system. Judge Leos grew up in Moriarty and was elected to the District Court in Albuquerque in 2016. She is also a voting member of the commission. “The more diverse that judiciary can be, the more it’s perceived by the public is fair, as part of their community,” she said.

The Commission on Equity and Justice is now a permanent standing commission of the state’s Supreme Court and will study issues related to bias and inequities in the state’s justice system and work to promote diversity among judges and employees of the court. While the courts in New Mexico are male-dominated, more women and minorities are being elected and appointed.

Judge Cindy Leos

Leos feels that, while neither women nor men make better judges, they do bring different experiences to the table. Leos started her career as a public defender and as a private attorney in Children’s Court. As part of her work in creating an equity pipeline for the courts, she mentors high school students as well as law school students. “I had my own challenges when I decided I wanted to be a judge,” she said. “A lot of ‘you can’t do it, you won’t do it’ until I finally got here.”

In 2020 the New Mexico Bar Association published its first-ever joint effort by the State Bar’s Committee on Diversity in the Legal Profession and the State Bar’s Committee on Women and the Legal Profession. The study looked at diversity and inclusion issues facing lawyers of color, LGBTQ attorneys, attorneys with disabilities and women attorneys.

The state’s courts have seen progress in gender equity in recent elections, especially in the Court of Appeals, with seven of the nine judges being women. There are, however, areas for improvement. In southern New Mexico, at least 75 percent of the judges serving on district and magistrate courts are men. The state’s judicial system also doesn’t reflect many women of color for a minority-majority state. Racial and ethnic minorities and women within the court is an important indicator of equity in the legal profession. According to the State Bar of New Mexico, only three percent of the state’s court system is Native American and only two percent are Asian or African American.

Leos feels it’s the right time to address these inequities and create a more inclusive court, which includes encouraging women and people of color and the tribal communities to enter the law profession. “We need to have faith in our judiciary, and if everybody in the judiciary looks the same, then I think there are problems with credibility,” she said. “We are advocates who make a difference, and I believe it’s my job to fight for inclusion.”

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