March 16, 2020

NM public defender office calls on state Supreme Court to postpone trials

For the first time, possibly ever, the New Mexico Law Offices of the Public Defender last week shut its physical offices to the public. Now the office is asking the state’s Supreme Court to postpone all pending trials and allow essential hearings to be done by phone. 

In response to the growing number of COVID-19 cases in the state, signs posted on the office’s door last week informed the public that all business should be handled remotely, if possible. 

In a statement released Sunday, Chief Public Defender Ben Baur acknowledged the importance of speedy trials, but said the health of those clients and public defender staff should take priority. 

“If this virus gets into one of our jails, the conditions are such that it could spread rapidly in close quarters, and many people in jail are already in poor health,” Baur said. 

The state Supreme Court already ordered limited actions in court buildings across the state, but said criminal trials should continue.

Baur spoke last week with NM Political Report about the decision to close physical offices.   

“Our doors will be closed to the general public and all LOPD business should be conducted via telephone and email, to the extent possible,” Baur said. “That’s to protect our clients as much as us.”

But unlike public schools or other events around the state, the LOPD cannot fully shut down. 

Baur said it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how many cases would be impacted by a hold on trials, but that the number is “easily over 100.” He said since the state first confirmed COVID-19 cases, the LOPD has been trying to utilize any and all resources to keep large groups out of court rooms and law offices. 

Alec Ortenstein, the managing attorney for the LOPD office in McKinley County, said he has been working with the county’s district attorney to minimize the amount of people in court and the amount of time they spend there. 

“Our district attorney and I see completely eye to eye on this issue,” Orenstein said. “We both agree that we need to prevent large groups of people from coming into court.”

But he said over the several days since COVID-19 was confirmed in the state, he’s seen courtrooms full of law enforcement officers, victims and defendants’ family members sitting “ankle to ankle” waiting for cases to be heard. And, he said, judges have been telling him their hands are tied. 

Supreme Court Chief Justice Judith Nakamura issued a call last week for courts around the state to take temporary measures to limit foot traffic. Those measures include holding off on civil jury trials, banning out-of-state work travel for court employees and minimizing the number of inmates who come to court from jail. But Nakamura did not issue any orders to pause criminal proceedings. 

In a statement issued on Friday, Nakamura stressed the importance of keeping the court system running. 

“Even during this health emergency our state court system must continue to provide essential justice services to the public guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States and New Mexico,” Nakamura said.

State court updates can be found here.

Henry Valdez, the director of the Administrative Office of the District Attorneys, told NM Political Report last week that defendants are owed a speedy trial and victims deserve to see justice served swiftly. 

“There really is no respite, we still have to go forward,” Valdez said. 

Valdez said district attorneys across the state are trying to let employees work from home whenever possible, but that criminal proceedings are much more than a plaintiff and a defendant. 

“We have to continue to prosecute cases and because of that we need witnesses, we need to work with victims,” Valdez said. “So [prosecutors] still have to carry on.”

Both federal and state courts around the country have reportedly pared back operations in an attempt to limit the amount of foot traffic. Last week, courts in Maryland, where there are 31 cases of positive tests for COVID-19, postponed all trials set to begin this week or later

Valdez called the past several days and the foreseeable future a “time of uncertainty” that makes a complicated procedure even more complicated. 

“On top of everything else this is something else that we’re going to have to deal with,” he said. 

Since Wednesday, New Mexico has seen 17 presumptive positive tests for COVID-19. On Thursday the state implemented a ban on large gatherings and the state’s Public Education Department announced all public schools would close for three weeks

Or as Valdez succinctly put it, “I think everybody woke up Wednesday morning to a new world.”