March 17, 2021

Civil rights bill passes Senate but must return to House (Updated)

The New Mexico Civil Rights bill passed the state Senate 26 to 15 but with only three-and-a-half days until the end of the legislative session, the bill must return to the House floor for concurrence because the Senate amended the bill.

Update: On Wednesday afternoon, the House concurred with the Senate changes on a 41-26 vote and sent it to the governor’s desk. This story continues as originally written below.

HB 4 would end qualified immunity as a defense in state civil courts and allows individuals whose civil rights have been violated to bring a case for remedy in state court. State Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, who is the lead sponsor for the bill in the Senate, amended the bill to make attorney’s fees subject to judicial review and added that a claimant suing law enforcement must notify the police of the lawsuit within one year after an alleged event occurs. Cervantes said this was so law enforcement could begin recovering records and conducting interviews.

The amendment did not change the section of the bill that allows a potential claim up to three years to be brought to the court. Only an event that occurs after July 1, 2021 is actionable, Cervantes said.

Republicans in the chamber debated the bill for around three hours late Tuesday night and into early Wednesday morning, arguing that the bill would bankrupt small towns in rural parts of the state.

But Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said that one of the biggest criticisms Republicans made about the bill is the conjecture that lawyers would rush to bring slip and fall suits as civil rights cases.

“This (amendment) eliminates this fear,” Wirth said.

Republicans tried to amend the bill with changes that Cervantes said were “unfriendly.” One that was deemed friendly was by state Sen. Pat Woods, R-Broadview, who successfully amended the bill to exclude water districts.

Because of amendments during the Senate process, the bill now heads back to the House. Legislation must pass both chambers with identical language to make it to the governor’s desk. The House can concur with the Senate changes or go into a conference committee, where members of both chambers would try to hammer out a compromise agreement.

Republicans, who all voted against the bill, also said the bill is an insult to law enforcement. State Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, called it a “slap in the face” to police officers.

The one Democrat, state Sen. George Muñoz, of Gallup, who voted against the bill, said the state Senate is becoming increasingly divided between rural and urban areas.

“Rural New Mexico is left out,” Muñoz said.

But Cervantes said that much of the rhetoric used during the discussion of the bill was “a diversion tactic to divide us.”

He said qualified immunity, which was created in the 1960s by the U.S. Supreme Court, was done as “judicial activism,” which Cervantes noted many Republicans decry.

Cervantes also listed off a number of large settlements that municipalities, counties and law enforcement in New Mexico have had to pay out over the past 10 years for violation of civil rights cases brought in federal court, where there is no cap on the remedy and attorney’s fees are recoverable.

The New Mexico Civil Rights bill sets a cap of $2 million for remedy.

Cervantes said that during the debate, no one talked about the people whose civil rights are violated.

“Let’s not forget those harmed,” he said.