It’s been two and a half weeks since George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis and protests and demonstrations calling for police accountability have continued to increase. Calls to action include a push to defund police forces, demilitarization of police and a reform of use of force standards.
Now, many federal lawmakers are introducing and co-sponsoring bills aimed at changing standard practices and in some cases how police are held accountable in civil suits. Both of New Mexico’s U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich co-sponsored legislation, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, that would change how citizens can sue police for constitutional violations as well as police use of force standards.
New Mexico has its own history of police reforms and calls for better practices — the Albuquerque Police Department is still in the middle of an attempt by the U.S. Department of Justice, to reform some unconstitutional policing practices. But attempts at holding officers accountable through civil suits in New Mexico often fall flat because of a federal judicial doctrine that ultimately protects officers from being sued: qualified immunity. Heinrich said qualified immunity makes it nearly impossible for plaintiffs to move forward with civil rights claims in federal court.
“Through the lens of Albuquerque, I think setting the new standard of qualified immunity is a standard of reasonable action,” Heinrich said.
When a state agency settles a lawsuit, often times the public’s focus is on how much money the state settled for. But an often overlooked portion of legal battles with state agencies is how much the state paid for legal representation.
Since former Gov. Susana Martinez left office nine months ago, there have been a number of news reports about settlement payouts to a handful of former state employees for alleged workplace discrimination. Often, public scrutiny is aimed at the plaintiffs. In a high profile settlement involving former Department of Public Safety employees, New Mexico’s former State Police Chief, who was accused of sexual harassment, called the claims from his former employees baseless and accused them of extorting money from tax payers. But lawyers from two different lawsuits covered extensively by NM Political Report argue that there should be more focus on how much the state pays for long, drawn-out legal defenses to ultimately settle for hundreds of thousands of dollars, specifically when women are the accusers.
‘It’s going to be like a proctology exam’
In December 2017, less than a month after the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center agreed to cut a jury trial short and settle with a former medical resident, Anesthesiology Chair Hugh Martin broke some bad news to his faculty—they would not be getting bonuses that year.
“I regret to inform the faculty that due to the recent legal settlement with the former dismissed problem resident, Cyndi Herald, that the Department had to reallocate the monies I had planned to use for a retention bonus to pay the settlement legal costs to Ms. Herald/Attorney Lisa Curtis,” Martin wrote.
The “problem resident” Martin referred to, Cynthia Herald, had spent years in a legal battle with her former employer.
After almost two years of legal battles, the State of New Mexico agreed to settle a lawsuit filed against its Corrections Department. In 2015, six female employees at the state prison in Los Lunas sued the department, saying some of their male supervisors assaulted and sexually harassed them. The six women collectively received $2.5 million according to the settlement agreement signed in January. Their attorney, Laura Schauer Ives, said the women sued the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility to shed light on what they called a culture of demeaning female corrections officers. The 140-page lawsuit alleged a history of aggressively sexual comments and crass words directed at female officers.
Michael McCamley liked to plan. It was part of his job in the U.S. Army and according to his son, state Rep. Bill McCamley of Dona Ana County, that instinct to plan for the unexpected extended to family matters, including death. In 2010, doctors diagnosed the retired lieutenant colonel with a rare, terminal disease similar to ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. After discussing it with his family, the elder McCamley decided to fill out an advance directive stating that he was not to be kept alive artificially if and when that time came. “Everyone knew what the situation was and what his decision was,” Rep. McCamley said.
The New Mexico Supreme Court heard oral arguments on whether or not the state should allow some medical patients a right to “aid in dying” on Monday morning. The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, represented by private attorney Laura Schauer Ives, argued in favor of allowing terminally ill patients, who are deemed mentally competent, the right to seek medication from physicians that would end their respective lives. In a written statement from the ACLU-NM, Schauer Ives said a patient’s right to “aid in dying” is “a fundamental right under our state constitution.”
“As we await the court’s final opinion on this issue, our thoughts are with the many New Mexicans living with terminal illness who are watching this case to see if they will have access to aid in dying if or when they need it,” Schauer Ives said. Scott Fuqua, who represented the New Mexico Attorney General’s office, argued that it should be the Legislature, not the courts, who decides whether it is legal for a patient to end their own life in some circumstances. Fuqua told justices the first question the court should address is whether or not it is “a fundamental right” for a terminally ill patient to end his or her life.
The New Mexico Supreme Court will rule on whether there is a right to “aid in dying” in New Mexico or not. Oral arguments will take place on October 26, in an expedited timeline. Decisions can typically take weeks or months afterward, and ruling from the bench and following up at a later date with a written opinion is extremely unlikely in such a case such as this. The Supreme Court set the date, including earlier dates for briefs and answer briefs to be sent to the court, on Monday. At issue is whether it is legal for physicians to aid terminally ill, mentally capable patients in choosing to end their life.
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.
A state appeals court ruled that there is no right to “aid in dying” in New Mexico, reversing a district court decision. The New Mexico Court of Appeals filed the split ruling on Tuesday after oral arguments in January. At issue is whether a 1963 law that makes it a fourth degree felony for “assisting suicide” is constitutional. “We conclude that aid in dying is not a fundamental liberty interest under the New Mexico Constitution,” the opinion on Morris v. King states. The opinion allows the state to continue enforcing the law against aiding in dying.