Proponents of civil rights protections claimed a victory Wednesday after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a new law allowing residents to sue government agencies in state courts over violations of the New Mexico Bill of Rights.

The New Mexico Civil Rights Act takes effect July 1.

Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, said the governor’s action was “one of the highlights of my more than 20 years with the ACLU.”

“It means New Mexicans have a far better and more timely route to justice in our state than what is otherwise afforded to them in the federal courts,” Simonson said. “They can now go into a New Mexico court, argue before a judge who has been elected by New Mexicans and argue for their rights under a constitution that is quintessentially New Mexican.”

Federal courts have become “increasingly hostile” to civil rights claims over the past few years, he said.

Wednesday’s bill signing came amid the high-profile trial of former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin, who is charged in the May death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man.

Several of the bill’s sponsors, including Sen. Joe Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, and House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said such legislation was needed following Floyd’s death and a series of nationwide civil rights demonstrations last year.

The legislation became one of the most hotly debated during this year’s regular legislative session, which ended March 20. While advocates for the measure said it would hold governments accountable, critics said it would lead to mounting costs for taxpayers while doing nothing to prevent such offenses.

A key provision in House Bill 4 eliminates “qualified immunity” as a legal defense to complaints against government workers and agencies.

Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine created by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1982. It shields government workers from personal liability under federal law.

However, under the new state law, lawsuits cannot be filed against individuals.

“The philosophy of qualified immunity has really been a barrier to justice for such a long time,” said Marshall Martinez, executive director of Equality New Mexico, an LGBTQ advocacy group headquartered in Albuquerque.

Martinez, who called Lujan Grisham’s action “exciting,” said federal court is “intimidating, inaccessible and downright dangerous for many people in our community. Providing an opportunity to seek justice in a state court means more New Mexicans will take that opportunity.”

He said the bill becoming law also means “LGBTQ New Mexicans — predominately of color — have access to justice that they have never had before.”

The Governor’s Office issued a news release Wednesday in which Lujan Grisham was quoted as saying, “New Mexicans are guaranteed certain rights by our state constitution. Those rights are sacred, and the constitutional document providing for them is the basis of all we are privileged to do as public servants of the people of this great state.”

She said that while many government employees work tirelessly to serve and protect New Mexicans, when “violations do occur, we as Americans know too well that the victims are disproportionately people of color, and that there are too often roadblocks to fighting for those inalienable rights in a court of law.”

Under the law, damages for such complaints are capped at $2 million.

The measure triggered an ethics complaint against Egolf, an attorney, as it was making its way through the legislative session. The complaint alleged Egolf would stand to benefit from the measure if it became law because an early version included a provision ensuring attorneys filing claims under the act would be compensated in successful cases.

The State Ethics Commission has said two of three charges in the complaint against Egolf likely will be dismissed but that a third is still under review.

The bill underwent several changes during the session. One amendment prohibits claims from being filed under the law for incidents that take place before July 1. Another amendment makes it discretionary, not mandatory, for a court to award attorney’s fees to a prevailing plaintiff.

The governor signed a total of 10 bills Wednesday. Among them were the following:

  • Senate Bill 1 allows 50 percent of state and local gross receipts tax revenues from construction projects of $350 million or more to be placed in the Local Economic Development Act fund to help the business with building and infrastructure costs.
  • Senate Bill 93 creates an Office of Broadband Access and Expansion to coordinate broadband projects among state and tribal governments and internet service providers. The office is tasked with creating a three-year plan to expand the state’s broadband system.
  • Senate Bill 94 will allow college athletes to enter into deals in which they are paid for endorsements.
  • Senate Bill 204 amends the Rural Telecommunications Act of New Mexico to define additional provisions under which carriers can apply and receive support from a fund intended to aid customers who live in low-income households, as well as schools, libraries and rural health care providers.
  • Senate Bill 256 allows fire departments statewide to access 100 percent of money available in the Fire Protection Fund to buy equipment. Previously, state law required most of the money to revert to the general fund, costing fire departments $13 million alone in 2021, according to the Governor’s Office.
  • Senate Bill 439 appropriates $165,000 from the general fund for a one-time $300 compensation for each legislative staff member who worked in the Roundhouse during the coronavirus pandemic.
  • House Bill 10 creates a Connect New Mexico Fund and Connect New Mexico Council to provide grants for broadband infrastructure.
  • House Bill 51 creates the Environmental Database Act, which calls for an online database on natural resources and land use in New Mexico, among other information.
  • House Bill 55 requires the Legislature to publish a searchable database showing how each lawmaker spends capital outlay. Currently, lawmakers are not required to do that, although some do so voluntarily.

General Assignment Reporter

Robert Nott has covered education and youth issues for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He is assigned to The New Mexican's city desk where he covers a general assignment beat.

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