NM public defender staff member tests positive for COVID-19

The New Mexico Law Offices of the Public Defender announced Tuesday that it closed its Santa Fe office after a staff member tested positive for COVID-19. 

According to a press release from the LOPD, the staff member had limited contact with other lawyers or clients, partially because of visitor restrictions at the Santa Fe detention center, Santa Fe’s district court and LOPD’s own office closures. About two weeks ago, the LOPD closed all of its physical offices, opting to conduct business only by phone or video conferencing. 

Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur, in a statement, said the employee will stay at home and that the LOPD will continue to limit person-to-person interaction. 

“We’re thankful our employee is able to quarantine at home at this time,” Baur said. “We will continue to be proactive with measures to protect the health of our employees, our colleagues in the justice system, and our clients.”

The LOPD was one of the first institutions in the state’s criminal justice system to close their offices and call on the state Supreme Court to significantly increase restrictions. State courts were eventually ordered by the high court to postpone all new jury trials, limit the number of people in courtrooms and conduct all business over the phone or by video, except in emergency situations. 

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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.

NM public defender office calls on state Supreme Court to postpone trials

For the first time, possibly ever, the New Mexico Law Offices of the Public Defender last week shut its physical offices to the public. Now the office is asking the state’s Supreme Court to postpone all pending trials and allow essential hearings to be done by phone. 

In response to the growing number of COVID-19 cases in the state, signs posted on the office’s door last week informed the public that all business should be handled remotely, if possible. 

In a statement released Sunday, Chief Public Defender Ben Baur acknowledged the importance of speedy trials, but said the health of those clients and public defender staff should take priority. 

“If this virus gets into one of our jails, the conditions are such that it could spread rapidly in close quarters, and many people in jail are already in poor health,” Baur said. 

The state Supreme Court already ordered limited actions in court buildings across the state, but said criminal trials should continue. Baur spoke last week with NM Political Report about the decision to close physical offices.   

“Our doors will be closed to the general public and all LOPD business should be conducted via telephone and email, to the extent possible,” Baur said. “That’s to protect our clients as much as us.”

But unlike public schools or other events around the state, the LOPD cannot fully shut down. 

Baur said it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how many cases would be impacted by a hold on trials, but that the number is “easily over 100.” He said since the state first confirmed COVID-19 cases, the LOPD has been trying to utilize any and all resources to keep large groups out of court rooms and law offices. 

Alec Ortenstein, the managing attorney for the LOPD office in McKinley County, said he has been working with the county’s district attorney to minimize the amount of people in court and the amount of time they spend there. 

“Our district attorney and I see completely eye to eye on this issue,” Orenstein said.

AG’s office walks out over change to child porn bill

A successful amendment to a bill to crack down on child porn caused staffers from a key state agency to storm out of the committee room in apparent protest. After lawmakers in the Senate Finance Committee voted to exempt teenage sexting from a measure increasing penalties on possession of child porn, Clara Moran, the division director for special prosecutions at the state Attorney General’s office and others from that office walked out of the committee room. Related Story: AG gives explanation for child porn bill walkout

Until that point, Moran acted as the expert witness for sponsors and Reps. Sarah Maestas Barnes, R-Albuquerque, and Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque. Sen. George Munoz, D-Gallup, was not pleased.