Justice Bacon: there is legal help out there

Public health orders restricting some businesses and public gatherings are slowly being lifted, but the New Mexico Supreme Court’s restrictions on eviction proceedings and limitations on civil cases in general are still in place. State Supreme Court Justice Shannon Bacon said she expects an increase of civil cases once courts are fully functioning. 

“What we’re anticipating with the health pandemic and the downturn of the economy and a really high unemployment rate are issues that really raise their head in the same way they did in 2008 and 2009 with the recession,” Bacon said. “So we’re reaching back in time to our experience then and trying to anticipate better what’s going to happen now.”

Bacon, the Supreme Court liaison to the New Mexico Commission on Access to Justice, wants the public to know that even with limited financial resources, people can find legal help for civil cases. Unlike criminal cases, defendants in civil suits are not automatically afforded a lawyer. 

While she said she doesn’t know when the Supreme Court will lift the stay on eviction proceedings, she is encouraging tenants anticipating or worried about the future of their housing to be proactive. She said she hopes tenants and landlords can come up with a “creative” solution to work out rent payment problems. But, Bacon said, if tenants are taken to court over rent issues, they may want to consider legal help. 

“I think it is a reasonable thing for folks, that if they believe that they’re going to be in a position to fight to keep their residence, that talking to a lawyer is a good idea,” Bacon said.

Ronchetti wins Republican primary for U.S. Senate

Former television news meteorologist Mark Ronchetti won the state’s Republican primary election for U.S. Senate, taking more than half the votes in a three-way race through partial results on Tuesday night. The results reported from the Secretary of State’s office as of 2:00 a.m. on Wednesday showed Ronchetti won 55.57 percent of the votes. 

One of his opponents, anti-abortion activist Elisa Martinez got 26.62 percent of the votes and Ronchetti’s other opponent, former Trump official Gavin Clarkson got 17.8 percent of the votes. Ronchetti will now face Democratic U.S. Rep Ben Ray Luján and Libertarian Bob Walsh in the November general election. Neither had competition in their parties’ primaries. The seat is currently held by Sen. Tom Udall, who announced he would not run for another term.

DOH announces 149 new COVID-19 cases, nine new deaths

New Mexico health officials on Sunday announced 149 new positive cases of COVID-19 and an additional nine deaths related to the disease. The new numbers bring the state’s total to 6,943 positive cases and 317 deaths

Due to reporting delays on Sundays, the state also said the numbers are not necessarily a complete picture, but that Monday’s numbers will reflect any missed cases. 

The state reported 213 people are currently hospitalized for COVID-19, an increase of five over Saturday’s number, and 2,464 people have recovered from the disease, an increase of 107 over Saturday. Some of those who are currently hospitalized for the disease may have come from out of state. 

Below is the breakdown of new cases by county:

12 new cases in Bernalillo County3 new cases in Chaves County7 new cases in Cibola County17 new cases in Doña Ana County1 new case in Eddy County64 new cases in McKinley County2 new cases in Otero County1 new case in Rio Arriba County1 new case in Roosevelt County9 new cases in Sandoval County23 new cases in San Juan County3 new cases in Santa Fe County1 new case in Taos County1 new case in Torrance County3 new cases in Valencia County1 new case among New Mexico Corrections Department inmates at the Otero County Prison Facility

Below is the breakdown of the most recent deaths related to COVID-19:

A male in his 60s from McKinley County. The individual was hospitalized and had underlying conditions. The individual was a resident of the Red Rocks Care Center in Gallup.A male in his 70s from McKinley County.

Campaigns forced to adapt during COVID-19 pandemic

Candidates are getting creative in how they connect with voters amid a COVID-19 pandemic. With about a week left before the primary election, some candidates are leaning on phone calls, text messages and social media more than usual in lieu of in-person campaign rallies or forums, even as tens of thousands of voters have already cast ballots through absentee or early in-person voting. 

Brett Phelps, a Democrat who is running for district attorney in the state’s 4th judicial district said a lack of face-to-face interaction with voters is one of the biggest challenges. Phelps, a criminal defense attorney, normally could have a more personable conversation with voters to make his pitch about why his experience on the defense side is better than his opponent who has worked for years in the DA’s office. He said, instead, he has been focusing on putting up campaign signs and making phone calls. 

“One of the hardest things, when we do have personal interactions, is not shaking hands,” Phelps said. “Shaking hands and kissing babies, that’s what they told me it was all about when I got into this.” 

Even when asking supporters to display one of his yard signs, Phelps said, he has to make a phone call first instead of knocking on doors. 

But, it is those person-to-person conversations that political hopefuls often count on that makes things the most difficult. 

“Not being able to meet with people face-to-face and answer their questions personally has definitely been a struggle,” Phelps said. 

Even walking door to door in more urban areas can present problems during a pandemic, said state House Republican candidate Jill Michel.

State to allow some businesses to open, require masks in public

New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham announced Wednesday a slight easing of COVID-19 restrictions, while also announcing some increased restrictions as of Saturday, May 16. 

While Lujan Grisham said the state would start allowing retailers and some other businesses to open to the public with capacity limitations, she also said the new public health emergency order will require everyone in the state to wear a face and nose covering when in public spaces. 

She said many businesses, with the exception of entertainment businesses like movie theaters, could open this weekend as long as they keep their capacity at 25 percent of what the fire code allows. She said those businesses must also continue to take certain precautions against spreading COVID-19. 

Large retail “box” stores would have their capacity capped at 20 percent. The easing of restrictions would not apply to Cibola, McKinley and San Juan counties, which are in northwestern New Mexico and have experienced the most cases so far. But those counties would see the restrictions moved to the “preparation phase” which the rest of the state has been in since May 1. “It means that we expect you to have COVID safe practices, that your employees and staff are wearing masks and anything else that really works at stopping the spread of the virus,” Lujan Grisham said. 

She also announced the shift to require, everyone to wear masks or nose and mouth coverings in public areas. 

“This is very different than what I said last week,” Lujan Grisham said.

NM reaches 200 COVID-19 deaths, total cases approaching 5,000

New Mexico health officials on Sunday announced 87 new positive cases of COVID-19 and an additional nine deaths related to the disease. That brings the state’s total to 4,863 positive cases and 200 deaths. 

Due to reporting delays on Sundays, the state also said the numbers are not necessarily a complete picture, but that Monday’s numbers will reflect any missed cases. 

The state reported 194 people are currently hospitalized for COVID-19 and 1,285 people have recovered from the disease. 

Below is the breakdown of new cases by county:

23 new cases in Bernalillo County21 new cases in Doña Ana County1 new case in Lea County14 new cases in McKinley County1 new case in Otero County6 new cases in Sandoval County20 new cases in San Juan County1 new case in Santa Fe County

Below is the breakdown of the most recent deaths related to COVID-19

A male in his 30s from McKinley County. The individual was hospitalized and had underlying medical conditions.A second male in his 30s from McKinley County. The individual was hospitalized and had underlying medical conditions.A female in her 80s from McKinley County. The individual was hospitalized and had underlying medical conditions.A female in her 70s from McKinley County.

Lawsuit claims public health order prevented important surgery

A Bernalillo County man filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the state after his scheduled surgery was cancelled in order to comply with one of the state’s COVID-19 public health orders. 

Edward Tsyitee, through his lawyer Blair Dunn, said he was scheduled for surgery to remove his gallbladder on April 13, but was denied by two different medical facilities because the state’s current public health order includes “Temporary Restrictions on Non-Essential Health Care Services, Procedures, and and Surgeries.”

In a sworn affidavit, Tsyitee recounted that in December 2018, during a visit to the emergency room, he was told he had gallstones and that a doctor advised him to schedule a surgery to remove his gallbladder. But days before his surgery, Tsyitee said his doctor called to tell him the surgery was postponed because of the state’s public health order. 

“Gallbladder surgery, while listed as an elective surgery, has become necessary for me to maintain my life and health,” Tsyitee wrote. “I am in pain, and suffering other medical issues due to the fact that I cannot have my gallbladder removed at this time.”

According to his affidavit, Tsyitee went to a second emergency medical center because he was suffering from “rectal bleeding” about 10 days after his surgery was cancelled. 

“I was concerned that I was suffering internal bleeding due to the gallbladder issues,” Tsyitee wrote. 

But testing showed there was no internal bleeding and doctors again sent him home. 

Along with the lawsuit seeking damages, Tsyitee also filed a request for a temporary restraining order to allow him to go in for surgery. 

A Department of Health spokesperson told NM Political Report that he department does not comment on pending litigation. 

A March 24 update to the state’s public health order specified that “non-essential” meant procedures that could be postponed for three months without putting a person in danger of further complications. 

The state’s public health order was amended on May 1 to allow for some non-essential procedures with the condition that medical centers follow current guidelines for limiting the spread of COVID-19.

NM Supreme Court denies request to expand inmate release

The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled Monday that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office did not willfully ignore the health and safety of state prison populations by releasing inmates in a limited manner during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The high court’s decision was in response to a petition filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and the state’s Law Offices of the Public Defender, alleging that Lujan Grisham’s office subjected inmates in state-run detention centers to cruel and unusual punishment by not broadening the scope of who is released. 

Chief Justice Judith Nakamura, ruling from the bench, said since the court did not find that Lujan Grisham’s office was “deliberately indifferent” to a possible COVID-19 outbreak in state detention centers there was no need to consider whether inmates’ rights were violated.  

“It’s a two prong analysis,” Nakamura said. “The court is not addressing prong one. We’re basing our decision on prong two. And that’s the prong which specifically focuses on whether or not [Lujan Grisham’s office] are deliberately indifferent to the health and safety of inmates. On this record the court unanimously finds that the answer is ‘no.’

Chief Public Defender Bennet Baur told NM Political Report that regardless of the court’s decision, his office will keep pushing for more releases.

Grants mayor facing two legal battles after defying state emergency order

Grants Mayor Martin “Modey” Hicks’ refusal to close municipal departments, like the city-run golf course, led to him being named in two different legal filings. One case is a lawsuit filed by the former city manager and the other a petition from the state’s attorney general asking the state Supreme Court to order Hicks to comply with a state emergency order. 

Last week, Hicks publicly announced that he would defy the state’s Department of Health order limiting the scope of what services and business can be open during the COVID-19 pandemic. True to his word, Hicks allowed businesses to open and reportedly told city employees to report to work, in-person. 

On Wednesday, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas filed a writ of mandamus, or a petition asking the high court to intervene on the basis that Hicks is not fulfilling his duty as mayor. 

Balderas argued in his petition that Hicks “is knowingly and intentionally violating the State’s public health emergency orders.” 

“He is directing city employees to violate these orders, and fired the city manager who refused to do so,” the petition read. “He is instructing and encouraging city businesses to reopen in violation of the orders, and proclaiming his constitutional authority to do so. Finally, he has invited a legal resolution of his dispute with the State.”

On Thursday, the day after Balderas’ petition, recently fired city manager Laura Jaramillo filed a whistleblower lawsuit against both the city and Hicks. 

In her suit, Jaramillo alleged that Hicks fired her after she refused to go against the state public health emergency order, even after state police issued a citation and warning against opening the course. 

“Upon information and belief, Hicks just wanted to open the golf course as a political stunt and to thumb his nose at the Governor,” the lawsuit alleges.

GOP candidates question opponents’ loyalty to Trump

Former T.V. meteorologist and Republican primary candidate for U.S. Senate Mark Ronchetti found himself in hot water with his opponents this week. Already a target for some local conservatives, Ronchetti now has to explain comments he made during a presentation on climate change at the University of New Mexico last year that seemed to be a criticism of President Donald Trump. “I’m a Christain conservative, who used to be a Republican, until the orange one,” Ronchetti said, invoking laughter from the crowd. “I’m afraid that has taken a part of my soul and that’s not coming back.”

Ronchetti did not respond to a request for an interview, but his campaign manager told the Albuquerque Journal that the comments were in jest and that he does indeed support the president. But his opponents, namely the one who said he found the video clip, are not buying it. 

Gavin Clarkson, a former Trump appointee and one of Ronchetti’s opponents, said he thinks “Support for Trump is a baseline qualification for the GOP.”

“If you’re going to say, ‘I support the president,’ prove it,” Clarkson told NM Political Report. 

Clarkson said he found the video while searching online to back up his claim that Ronchetti’s previous public views on climate change differ from Trump’s. 

“He spent the next 45 minutes to an hour talking about policies that this president doesn’t support,” Clarkson added. 

But this week’s claims that Ronchetti wavers in his support for the White House are not the first for him or for other GOP candidates in the state.