Panel approves money for jury trials

A state Senate committee Monday night approved $1.6 million in funding for the courts, enough to pay for jury trials through June 30, the end of the fiscal year. Still, it was unclear whether the legislation represented a temporary or a permanent step back from the brink of a breakdown for the judicial system. The committee action was another pull in a political tug-of-war between the Democratic-controlled Legislature and Republican Gov. Susana Martinez over funding for the courts. The game is being played out against a backdrop of a state budget crunch across all of government. In recent weeks, Martinez has twice vetoed money to avoid a halt to jury trials and potential dismissal of criminal charges against defendants.

Lawmakers approve money for courts

The state House of Representatives rushed Monday evening to approve emergency funding so that New Mexico’s court system would have enough money to pay jurors and interpreters for at least the next two months. The 68-0 vote sends the funding bill to the Senate with the clock ticking on what Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Daniels said could be a breakdown of New Mexico’s justice system. He said the state will be forced to end jury trials March 1 for lack of money. House members approved the bill just days after Republican Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed emergency court funding when Democrats added it to a different bill. Judges and court administrators aren’t the only ones feeling the pain of New Mexico’s cash shortage.

Governor signs part of bill to pay for legislative session

Gov. Susana Martinez on Thursday signed an $8.6 million bill to fund the legislative session and provide about 460 employees at the state Capitol with their paychecks this week. But Martinez also vetoed a portion of the bill that would have supplied emergency funding for the court system, prompting Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Daniels to say there will be no money for jury trials beginning March 1. “We’re facing requests to dismiss serious criminal cases because we have not been able to provide speedy trials as our constitution requires,” he said. Martinez’s stinging message to lawmakers explaining her line-item veto on court funding demonstrates how partisan mudslinging has stalled even basic governance during this 60-day session. The funding bill for the legislative session typically is approved and signed as a routine matter, but New Mexico’s financial crisis means this session is anything but ordinary.

Lawmakers send governor last compromise bills to balance state budget

State lawmakers on Wednesday passed the last pieces of a plan to balance New Mexico’s budget for the current fiscal year and rebuild the state’s drained cash reserves, coming to compromises on cuts to education funding and an economic development program. Unclear is whether Republican Gov. Susana Martinez will veto any pieces of the solvency package for fiscal year 2017. She has vowed to protect funding for classroom instruction and the state’s “closing fund” intended to draw prospective investors to the state, but a proposal she preferred would have taken far more money from school districts’ reserve funds than the plan approved by lawmakers. Martinez has three days to act on the bills, and a spokesman said the Governor’s Office will need to closely scrutinize parts of the proposal, echoing the criticisms of House Republicans. “For example, lawmakers chose to protect their personal legislative retirement accounts, while at the same time tried to squeeze money out of other areas of government,” Mike Lonergan said in an email late Wednesday.

Pomp, circumstance and State of the State in photos

As is often the case, the first day of the 2017 legislative session began with lawmakers, lobbyists and reporters catching up and getting their bearings straight. The first day began with lawmakers settling into their new seating assignments and making new leadership official. Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, was elected Speaker of the House, while Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, was elected by the Democratic caucus to serve as the Majority Floor Leader.  

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We must properly fund New Mexico’s court system

New Mexico’s courts face a funding crisis that threatens to undermine the judiciary’s ability to protect our rights by delivering timely justice. We must act now to prevent further damage. As Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Daniels recently told a legislative committee, “We are now basically on life support through the end of this fiscal year.”
Pete Campos is a Democratic state senator who represents the Las Vegas area. In courthouses across the state, New Mexicans can see the corrosive effects of budget cuts and underfunding of the judiciary. Most magistrate courts are closed to the public for at least half a day each week because the courts are unable to fill vacant staff positions.

Courts announce budget reductions, say further would have big consequences

The Administrative Office of the Courts announced cost-cutting measures designed to help balance the state budget amid the current crisis. Further cuts, however, would be painful and impact the courts, according to the state Supreme Court Chief Justice. The announcement Tuesday said the judiciary will reduce spending by about $500,000 by dropping the mileage reimbursement for travel. The reduced reimbursements will affect “judges, staff, jurors, interpreters and court-ordered witnesses,” according to the press release. Beginning Oct.

Supreme Court weighs in on Skype testimony, judges using Facebook

Lawyers cannot use Skype or similar services for expert witnesses testifying against a defendant, the state Supreme Court ruled Monday. The ruling came after an expert witness in a murder and kidnapping trial used Skype to testify on the evidence against the defendant. The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that since the defendant did not waive his constitutional right to confront witnesses, the testimony is invalid. The witness was no longer in the state, however the state’s high court ruled, “Inconvenience to the witness is not sufficient reason to dispense with this constitutional right.“

The Supreme Court ruled the kidnapping case did not have enough evidence for a conviction and remanded the murder charge back to district court for a new trial. “The United States Supreme Court has never adopted a specific standard for two-way video testimony, but we doubt it would find any virtual testimony an adequate substitute for face-to-face confrontation without at least the showing of necessity that Craig requires,” Chief Justice Charles Daniels wrote in the opinion, referring to Maryland v. Craig that affirmed the use of one-way video for testimony by the accuser in a child sex abuse case.

Finally, Phil Griego case has a judge

In what looks like a final decision, attorneys for a former state senator and prosecutors agreed on a judge to preside over the case. Brett Loveless will preside over the high profile case of Phil Griego, who is facing corruption charges related to a real estate deal that ended with his resignation from the state SEnate. The last time we checked in with the case, the Democrat from San Jose pleaded not guilty. This came in front of the eighth judge assigned to the case. Before District Court Judge Sarah Singleton took the case, the previous seven recused themselves.

Senate version of bail reform advances

After Senate passage last week, a proposed constitutional amendment that would change the bail process in New Mexico cleared its first House committee Monday afternoon. The bill would allow general election voters this fall to weigh in on allowing a judge to deny bail to defendants deemed dangerous to society. Under the amendment, defendants who don’t present a danger to society could not be held if the only thing keeping them in jail was a lack of money

The House Judiciary Committee passed the bill 7-2, with Reps. Zach Cook, R-Ruidoso, and David Adkins, R-Albuquerque, casting to only dissenting votes. The bill has support from criminal defense attorney organizations, public defender offices, civil liberty groups and city and county organizations.