December 15, 2017

Judge: Guv’s office ignoring open records request violated law, but ignoring questions didn’t

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Photo Credit: Joe Gratz cc

A New Mexico district judge ruled Wednesday that Gov. Susana Martinez’s office violated the state’s public records law, but did not break the law when ignoring or refusing interview requests with a Santa Fe newspaper.

The Santa Fe Reporter was first to report on the decision from Santa Fe Pro Tem District Judge Sarah Singleton.

Singleton ruled that the governor’s office violated the state Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA) three times by failing to respond or responding late to public records requests. But, Singleton ruled that the governor and her staff did not violate the U.S. Constitution by refusing to speak to or answer questions from Reporter staffers. She not only said existing case law does not support the paper’s arguments, but that the paper’s questions aimed at the governor’s office “were not comparable to the mundane requests made by other newspaper.”

“The Reporter was requesting special treatment,” Singleton wrote. “Under the First Amendment, the Reporter had no right to this treatment.

Santa Fe Reporter Editor and Publisher Julie Ann Grimm said she and the paper’s lawyer are still reviewing the ruling and haven’t made a decision on the paper’s next steps.

“We really need time to study and digest the judge’s ruling,” Grimm said.

But for now, Grimm said, she feels “vindicated” that Singleton not only ruled that the governor’s office violated IPRA, but that the judge also reinforced that public business on a private email account is still public information.

The paper’s lawyer Daniel Yohalem could not be reached for comment by publication time.

The governor’s office focused on the constitutional result on Friday afternoon.

“The Santa Fe Reporter’s claims were overreaching, and the Court firmly rejected them,” spokeswoman Emilee Cantrell said in a statement. “In fact, portions of the case were dismissed prior to trial, and the Governor prevailed on virtually all of the rest of the case – including on all of the central issues before the Court.”

“In particular, the Court rejected the claim that SFR’s constitutional rights were ever violated,” she continued. “The Court also found that the Governor’s Office has adequate training and search procedures for public records requests, finding only a few minor violations related to SFR’s requests.”

In 2013, the Reporter sued the governor’s office for violating IPRA and discriminatorily denying access to the paper after it published critical stories of Martinez.

NM Political Report attended the trial earlier this year when former Martinez staffers blamed busy schedules and a short-handed staff for delayed responses to records requests or unanswered questions to reporters.

Martinez’s contract lawyer Paul Kennedy argued in his closing statement that the governor’s office had a workload problem and not a transparency problem.

Yohalem argued the governor’s office had a deficient policy for responding to records requests in a timely manner and that emails showed discriminatory attitudes from the governor’s office towards Reporter staffers and the paper itself.

It’s still unclear what the next steps for both parties are, but each side has about two weeks left to notify the court of an intention to appeal.

Martinez’s office was ordered to pay fees associated with the three IPRA violations and the Reporter’s attorney fees. But the paper will not be able to collect damages associated with those three violations.

Though Singleton announced her retirement over the summer, she agreed to finish up a few cases as a pro tem judge, including the Reporter’s suit.

Update: Added statement by Emilee Cantrell.

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