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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.

The Chino Mine in southwestern New Mexico was one of the first open-pit copper mines in the world.

Copper rule case awaits resolution

The New Mexico Supreme Court heard oral arguments on a rule related to the state’s regulation of groundwater beneath copper mines last fall. There’s no saying exactly when the court, which heard the case at the end of September, will issue its opinion. But it could be this year. This comes as the price of copper is on the rise after two years of declines. At the end of last year, the metal rallied—and some analysts expect it to do well in 2017.

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Supreme Court to weigh expanding online court records access to press

The New Mexico Supreme Court is set to decide whether or not to extend online access of court records to journalists next month. While some praise the proposed change as a move toward more transparency, others cite a growing distrust of news media as a reason for access to remain the same. Most court records are already available to the public, but only in-person through the clerk’s office in respective court houses. Online court records are only available to lawyers and court officials. The proposed rule would allow journalists, law enforcement officials and people representing themselves in court to apply for online access to court records.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump at recent rallies. (Flickr/cc, Flickr/cc)

Poll: Clinton up by 5 in NM as Election Day nears

A poll by Research and Polling, Inc. for the Albuquerque Journal released Sunday shows Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton leads Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump by 5 percent in New Mexico, days before Election Day. Research and Polling, which conducts polls for the Journal, is the only pollster that uses live interviews to poll in New Mexico this year. The poll, conducted from Nov. 1 to 3, shows 45 percent of likely voters say they will vote for Clinton, while 40 percent say they will vote for Trump. Former Gov. Gary Johnson, the Libertarian nominee, saw his support fall to 11 percent.

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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.

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Farmworkers win workers comp protections

In an opinion that left no room for doubt, the New Mexico Supreme Court said Thursday that farm and ranch laborers in the state are entitled to Workers’ Compensation insurance protection and that farm and ranch owners have to cover them. And those workers are entitled to that protection even though the state Legislature has excluded them from the Workers’ Compensation law as a way to protect the agricultural industry, the court said. This piece originally appeared on the ABQ Free Press website and is reprinted with permission. “We conclude that there is nothing to distinguish farm and ranch laborers from other agricultural employees and that purported government interests such as cost savings, administrative convenience, and other justifications related to unique features of agribusiness bear no rational relationship to the Act’s distinction between these groups,” said the opinion written by Justice Edward Chavez. “This is nothing more than arbitrary discrimination and, as such, it is forbidden by our Constitution.

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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.

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State high court says flat fees for public defenders are OK

The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled Thursday that flat-fee rates paid by the state’s Public Defender’s office to contract attorneys in criminal cases does not violate an indigent person’s right to effective counsel as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. The unanimous ruling vacated a lower court order that the Law Office of the Public Defender pay a minimum of $85 an hour to attorneys in criminal cases for indigent clients, and it affirmed the state Legislature’s decree that the Public Defender not pay contract attorneys an hourly rate, but rather a flat-fee rate. “We find no basis to presume that any indigent defendant currently represented by contract counsel necessarily receives constitutionally deficient assistance,” the court’s opinion said. “We assume that attorneys represent their clients honorably, consistent with both their professional duties and the terms under which they contract with the LOPD to provide indigent defense.”

The opinion rose out of criminal cases in Lincoln County in 2012 and 2014 against Santiago Carrillo, who was charged with voyeurism, possession of drug paraphernalia and criminal sexual penetration. He filed a motion asking a judge to order the LOPD to pay his contract attorney, Gary Mitchell, $85 an hour.

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Odds and Ends: Supreme Court rules on private prison liability

—Private prison companies can be held liable for assaults by employees, including guards. That is after a ruling by the New Mexico Supreme Court. At issue is Anthony Townes, a guard for Corrections Corporation of America, who is now in state prison as part of a 16-year sentence for raping four women inmates as well as false imprisonment. For the full opinion, see here. For an explainer from New Mexico Attorney Trace Rabern, see the tweets below.

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What’s next for Uber and Lyft

Legislation that provides an outline for regulations of ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft is awaiting action by Gov. Susana Martinez—but there is still a possible lengthy process before the rules are in place. After rules imposed last year by the Public Regulation Commission in the absence of legislation, Lyft halted operations in the state and Uber has been operating, some say, illegally. A pending New Mexico Supreme Court case and possible signature by the governor adds some ambiguity to the future of Uber in New Mexico and whether Lyft will resume operations in the state. If signed into law, companies like Uber and Lyft would be regulated separately from taxi companies by the PRC. Martinez’s signature needed

The entire process depends on Martinez signing the legislation, which seems promising given her reaction after the session to the legislation on ride-hailing (which she calls ride-sharing) companies.