Prosecutors and defense lawyers have shielded records from public view without a judge’s order in New Mexico’s federal courts, an apparent violation of the U.S. District Court of New Mexico’s own rules, New Mexico In Depth has learned. Judges, not lawyers, are supposed to decide which documents are made available to the public and which should remain secret through an established protocol based in part on decades of case law: Attorneys must submit a written request asking a judge to seal records and a judge must consent before records are sealed. Despite this well-known standard, in numerous instances spread among three criminal cases, the New Mexico offices of the U.S. Attorney and the Federal Public Defender have decided unilaterally to make documents secret without a judge’s order, according to a review of federal court records by NMID. This story originally appeared at New Mexico In Depth. It is not clear how many of the thousands of federal court records each year have been sealed this way, but one federal public defender says the practice has gone on for years.
New Mexico’s courts face a funding crisis that threatens to undermine the judiciary’s ability to protect our rights by delivering timely justice. We must act now to prevent further damage. As Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Daniels recently told a legislative committee, “We are now basically on life support through the end of this fiscal year.”
Pete Campos is a Democratic state senator who represents the Las Vegas area. In courthouses across the state, New Mexicans can see the corrosive effects of budget cuts and underfunding of the judiciary. Most magistrate courts are closed to the public for at least half a day each week because the courts are unable to fill vacant staff positions.
New Mexico is the fourth worst state in America for violent crimes. Or maybe it’s the second. Both rankings were cited in testimony from Department of Public Safety Greg Fouratt in a Monday afternoon interim legislative Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee hearing. The two numbers come from interpretations of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, which measures eight different types of crimes in states on a yearly basis. The website 24/7 Wall St., for example, ranked New Mexico with the fourth-most violent crime per 100,000 based on 2012 data and second-most violent based on 2013 data.
Gov. Susana Martinez named a Second Judicial District Court Judge to fill the vacancy on the state Supreme Court. Martinez announced in a press release on Thursday afternoon that Judge Judith Nakamura will fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Justice Richard Bosson. “Judge Nakamura has shown tremendous leadership and dedication during her time on the bench. As an advocate for public safety, she has a proven track record of working to keep our families safe,” Governor Martinez said in a statement. “I’m proud to appoint her to our highest court because she has devoted her career to upholding justice, and I’m confident she will continue to serve New Mexico with integrity.”
Nakamura has served on the Second Judicial District Court since 2013, when she was appointed by Martinez.
The New Mexico Supreme Court could decide once and for all if a law that forbids anyone to assist in ending the life of a terminally ill patient is legal. The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and the Disability Rights Legal Center asked the state’s high court for an expedited review of the case. The move comes just one week after the state Court of Appeals ruled on the case, reversing a District Court decision that said there was a right to “aid in dying” in New Mexico. The writ says the court must decide “one of the most private, intimate decisions made in a lifetime—how we face our own deaths.” The full request is available at the bottom of this post.
The aftermath of a heinous crime that saw a career criminal kill a Rio Rancho police officer is sparking talk of tougher crime laws. Next week, state lawmakers in the interim Courts, Corrections & Justice Committee will hear testimony on a bill to add crimes to New Mexico’s existing “three strikes” law, which assigns mandatory life in prison sentences to convicts of three violent crimes. Yet the local legislative doubling down on “tough on crime” laws—two Republican state representatives are proposing changes that would tighten New Mexico’s three strikes law—comes at a time with strong national momentum in the opposite direction. And it’s Republicans with national ambitions that, in many cases, have been making headlines for this. “Former [Texas] Gov. Rick Perry is going around the country bragging that he closed three prisons,” said state Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, who supports criminal justice reform.
A Santa Fe district court judge handed down fines to the state’s Public Education Department Thursday afternoon for failing to properly respond to public records requests from a teachers’ union. The state must pay nearly $500, plus attorneys fees, for failing to abide by the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA). The main contention was the union’s records request centered around National Education Association New Mexico (NEA) attorney Jerry Todd Wertheim said was “the core of public debate over the teacher evaluation system.” The union asked for all public documents associated with a claim often repeated by PED Secretary Hanna Skandera and others over the years—that the previous state teacher evaluation system found more than 99 percent of the state’s teachers competent. They said this showed it was not an effective evaluation.
In a report to an interim legislative committee, the New Mexico Law Offices of the Public Defender told lawmakers the situation for public defenders in the state is getting better, but that they still need more funding. Chief Public Defender Jorge Alvarado told the Legislative Finance Committee on Friday that his office is on its way to filling 33 staff attorney positions this year, but that contract counsel is still a problem. In his presentation, Alvarado said his office is struggling to maintain an adequate amount of contract attorneys to defend cases in rural parts of the state. He added that even with a standard of having “a heartbeat and a bar card” for contract attorneys, low flat rates for contracts makes it hard to attract lawyers. The Law Offices of the Public Defender has long advocated for hourly rates over flat fees in order to properly defend clients in court.