NM Supreme Court: State has authority to limit indoor dining

Once again, the state Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the state when it came to upholding and enforcing the state public health order, this time saying not only does the state Department of Health have the authority to close or restrict indoor dining at restaurants, but that their decision to do so was not arbitrary and capricious, as argued by some restaurants. “It is the policy of courts to uphold regulations intended to protect public health unless it is plain they have no real relation to the object to which they were enacted,” Justice Judith Nakamura said in announcing the decision. Citing a 1939 decision, State v. Old Abe, Nakamura said, “Only agency action that is willful and unreasoning and done without consideration and in disregard to the facts and circumstances can be deemed arbitrary and capricious.”

The court will issue a written order at a later date. Chief Justice Michael Vigil recused himself from the case. Nakamura also said the court ordered the lower court that issued a temporary restraining order that allowed indoor dining to resume—which itself was stayed by the Supreme Court to allow the ban on indoor dining to continue—to vacate that order.

Chief Justice Nakamura to retire in August

New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice Judith Nakamura will retire in August, according to an announcement from the Administrative Office of the Courts. 

Nakamura became the first Republican woman elected to the high court in 2016 and became the court’s chief justice in 2017. She is currently the sole Republican on the bench. “In my years on the bench, I’ve always strived to not only make the best legal decisions possible but to improve people’s lives and advance the administration of justice,” Nakamura said in a statement. 

The announcement did not say why she was retiring, but said Nakamura’s last day as Chief Justice will be August 1. Nakamura was first appointed to the state Supreme Court by then-Gov. Susana Martinez in 2015. In an email to members of the State Bar of New Mexico, the Administrative Office of the Courts also announced that the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission will meet next month to discuss nominations for Nakamura’s replacement.

Courts start planning to restart jury trials by mid-June

The state Supreme Court said that courts can once again begin jury trials in criminal and civil trials on June 15 after taking precautions. The state Supreme Court had suspended jury trials due to COVID-19 in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Now, as the state appears poised to further ease restrictions to slow the spread of the disease, the courts will follow suit. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is expected to give an update on easing restrictions during a Thursday afternoon press conference.  “As our state gradually reopens, courts can safely resume jury trials as local conditions permit,” Chief Justice Judith K. Nakamura said in a statement when announcing the news. “Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, New Mexico courts have worked diligently to protect the health of people entering a courthouse.

State Supreme Court rejects petition for all-mail primary election

In a ruling that will impact the quickly approaching primary elections, the state Supreme Court denied a petition to move to primarily mail-in voting in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the state’s public health emergency. Instead, the high court ordered that the county clerks and the Secretary of State send absentee ballot applications to all registered voters. In-person voting will also remain open, though it “must proceed and comply with the governor’s executive orders and the New Mexico Department of Health’s public health emergency order.”

Currently, the public health emergency order only allows gatherings of five people in most instances. Grocery stores and other retail operations that remain open after being deemed ‘essential’ can only have 20 percent of their maximum capacity. 

The order came after about two hours of deliberations. The oral arguments took nearly two and a half hours.

State Supreme Court orders eviction moratorium during coronavirus emergency

The New Mexico Supreme Court ordered a temporary moratorium on evictions for those who are unable to pay rent during the public health emergency over the spread of COVID-19. A number of cities and states across the country have put such moratoriums into place over the past few weeks. “New Mexicans are struggling financially as workplaces close because of the public health emergency,” Chief Justice Judith K. Nakamura said in a statement while announcing the order. “The Court’s order will provide temporary relief for families and individuals facing the possibility of losing their housing at a time when the governor and public health officials have ordered New Mexicans to remain at home to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

The court says that the order is another precautionary measure to protect public health. In cases where the tenant can prove inability to pay, judges are ordered to stay the execution of writs of restitution property owners obtain from courts and give to law enforcement to force the removal of a tenant.

NM Supreme Court orders further COVID-19 restrictions for state courts

The New Mexico Supreme Court announced Tuesday further restrictions for court proceedings across the state. 

The court’s updated order, which will go into effect immediately, also suspended all trials that have not already started until April 30. In a statement, New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice Judith Nakamura said the order will help preserve the integrity of the justice system while also providing safety from COVID-19, a disease from the coronavirus. “The precautionary measures imposed by the Judiciary today will provide additional safeguards for all New Mexicans while allowing necessary court functions to continue,” Nakamura said. But she said it is also imperative the courts remain open. “Especially during a public health emergency, courts must not close because they deliver vital services required in our justice system to ensure community safety,” Nakamura said.

Chief Justice Nakamura urges lawmakers for funding

New Mexico Chief Justice Judith Nakamura on Monday pushed lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee for more funding for new judge positions and beefed-up security in courts across the state. The committee is not directly involved in crafting the state budget, but Nakamura and Arthur Pepin, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, discussed what they argued is a need for $1.53 million to hire more judges, including one in the First Judicial District Court in Santa Fe, and more than $2.7 million to bolster court security in a state where only two of 47 Magistrate Courts have armed security guards. “Courts tend sometimes to be fairly volatile places, so ensuring that those who work in the courts as well as those who use the courts remains one of our highest priorities,” Nakamura said after the hearing. “Police departments, sheriff’s departments, are themselves strapped for resources, or districts are so large they’re off patrolling other areas,” she continued. “And we do have some courthouses where there isn’t security neatly available for a variety of reasons, [or] their call button doesn’t go to the closest sheriff’s department but one that could be a hundred miles away.

State high court vacates death sentences of final two inmates on death row

The New Mexico Supreme Court vacated the death sentences of the final two inmates on death row Friday, ruling the sentences were not in line with sentences for similarly “horrendous” crimes. The court sent the cases of Timothy Allen and Robert Fry back to district court in San Juan County to instead impose sentences of life in prison. New Mexico last executed an inmate in 2001 when convicted murderer and rapist Terry Clark died by lethal injection; before Clark, New Mexico had not executed an inmate since 1960. In 2009, Gov. Bill Richardson signed a bill repealing the death penalty in New Mexico. Both Allen and Fry were sentenced under the 1979 law which allowed for prosecutors to seek the death penalty in certain cases.

Chief justice: NM court system in better shape

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Judith Nakamura told a joint session of the New Mexico Legislature on Thursday the state’s justice system, which her predecessor described in 2017 as a patient on life support, is beginning to breathe on its own. Nakamura said funding appropriated over the past two years means the judicial branch can now pay Magistrate Court rents without worry and no longer loses employees to better paying jobs to discount retail stores such as Wal-Mart and Target. And, she said, a new jury management system has resulted in savings that mean jurors are paid in a timely fashion for the first time in eight years. “Are our courts thriving?” Nakamura said.

NM Supreme Court strikes down straight-party voting

The New Mexico Supreme Court unanimously struck down a controversial proposal to add a straight-party option to November’s ballot. Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver announced last month that she would reinstate an option on November’s ballot to allow people to vote for all candidates of a given party with one mark on the ballot. That decision was challenged by the Libertarian and Republican parties of New Mexico, along with a Utah-based political action committee, a non-profit advocate group for independent candidates and one Democratic write-in candidate. On Wednesday, Chief Justice Judith Nakamura called it a tough decision, but said only state lawmakers can add add straight-party voting to the ballot. “Until the legislature makes a decision one way or the other, the Secretary of State cannot,” Nakamura said.