November 10, 2021

Four Democratic state Senators ask to join NM Supreme Court case over federal funding

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New Mexico State Supreme Court

Four more New Mexico lawmakers will likely be a part of oral arguments in a New Mexico Supreme Court case regarding whether the governor or the legislature can appropriate federal relief money. 

State Senators Jerry Ortiz y Pino, George Muñoz, Joseph Cervantes and Daniel Ivey-Soto, all Democrats, filed a motion with the state’s high court on Wednesday, asking the justices to allow them to file an amicus, or friend of the court, brief. In the proposed brief, the four lawmakers, who are representing themselves, argued that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s take on appropriating federal COVID-19 relief money goes against the state constitution and that Lujan Grisham’s legal counsel is misrepresenting case-law. 

“This is a constitutional case that affects all two million citizens of New Mexico and that concerns the making and implementation of public policy decisions at the highest levels of New Mexico state government,” the proposed brief reads. “The Court’s decision will impact future cases involving the expenditure of public money through legislative appropriation.”

Earlier this year, Democratic Sen. Jacob Candelaria and Republican Sen. Greg Baca filed a petition with the state supreme court asking the justices to order Lujan Grisham to hand over appropriation duties to the Legislature. In response, Lujan Grisham’s lawyer cited a New Mexico Supreme Court case from 1974 and argued it set a precedent for the governor to decide how to spend federal relief money. In State ex rel. Sego v. Kirkpatrick, the state supreme court ruled that federal money designated for higher education could be appropriated by the governor. 

But the four senators asking to join the case argued that Lujan Grisham’s office was being selective when citing case law.  

“Counsel for the Governor misconstrue State ex rel. Sego v. Kirkpatrick, as can be seen by actually reading the case rather than grabbing a few lines from it,” the brief reads. 

The brief from the four senators goes on to argue that the 1974 case actually points to the favor of Candelaria and Baca as, “The court ruled in favor of the Legislature on four of the six attempted vetoes,” that led to the state supreme court case. 

The four senators also argued that the issue of funding for higher education is a separate one from the issue in question now. 

“This particular ruling rests entirely on the text of the New Mexico Constitution which grants special status and autonomy to institutions of higher learning,” the brief reads. 

Prior to the four Democratic senators asking the court to be a part of the proceedings, State Treasurer Tim Eichenberg, who was named as a party of interest, filed his own brief arguing that the Legislature should be the body to appropriate the federal funds aimed at helping the state gain its financial footing after the COVID-19 pandemic. After Eichenberg’s brief, a spokesperson for the governor’s office said it would not comment on pending litigation, but that the “Lujan Grisham administration looks forward to continuing to provide ongoing support for economic rejuvenation throughout the state.”

“Courts have previously made clear the Legislature may appropriate state, not federal, funds,” Lujan Grisham spokesperson Nora Meyers Sackett said at the time. 

Oral arguments for the case are scheduled for next week.