This story appears in both The Paper and the Santa Fe New Mexican through a partnership to bring our readers the best in reporting from the legislature.
A revised civil rights bill that would end “qualified immunity” in New Mexico is headed to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk after passing both chambers Wednesday.
The big question: Will the governor sign it?
Lujan Grisham’s press secretary didn’t return messages seeking comment on House Bill 4, which cleared the state Senate just after midnight Wednesday on a 26-15 vote with several amendments.
The changes include eliminating mandatory attorneys fees and requiring that a government agency receive notice of a potential claim involving law enforcement within a year — provisions designed to assuage the concerns of cities and counties concerned the proposed New Mexico Civil Right Act will lead to higher insurance rates and costly settlements.
The House of Representatives voted 43-26, mostly along party lines, with Republicans opposing the measure, to concur with the Senate amendments to the bill Wednesday afternoon.
“We will soon have a clear path to justice and a meaningful way to hold government accountable,” House Speaker Brian Egolf, a Santa Fe Democrat, tweeted after the vote. “This is a bright day for the NM Constitution.”
A few House Republicans questioned the amendments and spoke again of the negative impact they feel the legislation could have on law enforcement and other government agencies.
Rep. Larry Scott, R-Hobbs, voiced concerns that a number of people involved in any one alleged civil rights violation could also file individual suits under the act. “I could certainly understand why communities across the state have had so much concern about this legislation. It would appear as though one misstep with a large number of people present could be potentially ruinous to a small community,” he said.
Most of the opposition to the bill comes from the proposal to eliminate a doctrine known as qualified immunity as a legal defense to civil rights complaints filed against government agencies in state District Court. The doctrine shields government workers, including police, from personal liability under federal law when workers violate people’s constitutional rights.
Currently, lawsuits alleging violations of U.S. constitutional rights are filed in federal court. HB 4 would create a path to filing similar claims in a state court under the New Mexico Bill of Rights. Damages are capped at $2 million.
Republican members of the Senate decried the measure during the late-night debate Tuesday, describing it as anti-law enforcement and saying it would lead to increased costs for government agencies that ultimately would be passed on to taxpayers.
“This bill doesn’t do anything to address the problem of public employees who violate individuals’ rights,” said Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho. “It’s just a slap in the face to all the officers in our state. All we’ve done in this bill is create a lawyer enrichment bill.”
The Senate sponsor of the bill, Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, asked lawmakers to “reject some of the rhetoric” heard in the chamber, calling it a tactic to divide them. “It’s only diversionary to try and suggest this is us versus the police,” he said.
Republicans said government concerns about higher insurance rates and increased exposure to liability were real.
“We’ve been here a long time with cities and counties calling in saying, ‘Please don’t do this to us. Please don’t do this to us.’ Because if we do this to them, we’re doing it to the people of New Mexico,” said Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington.
“We don’t want to deprive somebody of their civil rights, but we also don’t want to make the taxpayers of whatever jurisdiction just pour money into this endless pit of lawsuits,” he added.
Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, said New Mexico would be dropping off a “precipice” with the civil rights bill.
“We have the most liberal liability laws of any place except Washington, D.C., and the stuff we didn’t have has now been added through this,” he said. “It’s going to open up areas for liability that we have never seen before. And our counties and our cities, our highway departments, every state agency we have, I think, is going to be subject to things that they have never even thought about.”
The vote in the Senate also was largely along party lines, with one exception. Sen. George Muñoz, a more moderate Democrat from Gallup, sided with Republicans in opposing the proposal.