On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of qualified immunity in two separate, but similar, federal cases that involved police officers who, the plaintiffs alleged, used excessive force in the two separate incidents.
But, those rulings will not impact the New Mexico Civil Rights Act, which prohibits the use of qualified immunity as a legal defense in state civil cases, said Leon Howard, legal director with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico.
Howard said that states are allowed to provide more protection for the individuals who live in the state than the federal constitution does but not less.
“When the Supreme Court rules on a constitutional issue, they’re interpreting the federal constitution and the body of law that makes up interpretation of the federal constitution,” Howard said.
The Supreme Court does not get involved in a case unless there is a federal question, Howard said.
A plaintiff in New Mexico can still sue a government entity for constitutional violation in federal court, Howard said. But in federal court, the government entity can still rely on the qualified immunity defense. Qualified immunity is a judicial rule established decades ago that has become an obstacle almost impossible to surpass in court.
The government entity in a case would have to argue that the New Mexico Civil Rights Act, passed in the 2021 Legislature and signed shortly thereafter by the governor, was violating its federal constitutional rights, Howard said. In addition, the case would also have to include a federal constitutional question, he said.
“States have sovereignty to create their own bodies of law and their own constitution. Our state courts have the authority to interpret state law free of influence of federal law,” Howard said.