So much for the notion that the state Supreme Court sits in the pocket of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

That’s been the rallying cry of Republicans who have sued the governor numerous times during the coronavirus pandemic, particularly over public health orders and the executive’s right to issue them. Those lawsuits proved to be losers for the GOP.

Not so with the latest complaint, this one concerning the executive’s right to single-handedly direct the spending of federal funds doled out for COVID-19 relief. The governor believed she did not require legislative input in deciding how to distribute the dollars. This despite the Legislature’s constitutional authority to allocate funds, with the executive retaining the right to veto legislation.

The initial lawsuit came after state Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, teamed with Republican Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca to question Lujan Grisham’s claim to sole authority over pandemic relief dollars — some $1.6 billion in federal aid. Four other Democratic senators supported the lawsuit, demonstrating the notion of principle over party still exists.

On Wednesday, after hearing arguments, the Supreme Court justices — all Democrats — came down on the side of separation of powers. It was a resounding setback to the idea of an imperial governor ruling by executive order.

Credit to Republicans who pushed the question, but also to those Democrats who stood up on the side of the Legislature. This was bipartisan pushback.

On Wednesday, Chief Justice Michael Vigil delivered a short order that froze pandemic relief funds until the Legislature can make appropriations. Lawmakers did so in March, allocating $1.1 billion in various ways — shoring up the unemployment insurance trust, underwriting road projects, assisting finances at state museums and providing tuition-free college to in-state students for several years. The governor vetoed those appropriations.

At the time, Democratic Sen. George Muñoz of Gallup encouraged his colleagues to ask for a Supreme Court opinion, saying: “I just think that the Legislature has to determine under their purview if they’re going to be the funding body or are we going to let the governor dictate. This is not a personal battle.”

Muñoz was one of the Democratic senators supporting the lawsuit, along with Sen. Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces, Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino of Albuquerque and Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto of Albuquerque. State Treasurer Tim Eichenberg, also a Democrat, weighed in on the side of legislative appropriation.

Now, the process must begin again, likely during the 30-day regular legislation session in January. That’s a session dedicated to the budget anyway.

Getting the dollars out and spent is important — the point of relief funding is to assist in a crisis. Some $1 billion remains to be allocated.

In claiming sole authority, the governor was relying on an almost 50-year-old Supreme Court decision that upheld the governor’s discretion over federal funding for universities. Her belief was this authority should be held more broadly, including for federal pandemic relief funds.

The ruling by the court — to be followed by a written order that could direct future federal spending — is an important check on the power of the executive. It reminds New Mexicans there are three branches of government, equal and independent. That’s true even if the governor, legislators and justices come from the same political party.

New Mexicans saw the power of checks and balances in action Wednesday, with justices who followed the Constitution — something that should be standard in all courts across the country.

(7) comments

Craig O'Hare

The NM Supreme Court made a decision they support and the New Mexican applauds the decision, and yet the habitual complainers, like Mike Johnson and Jason Barker, complain nonetheless. Sad.

Mike Johnson

If I had thought the esteemed editorial board's comments here were sincere it would be different. But knowing "them" the way I do, and knowing "they" are the chief apologist and in the political tank for MLG in any issue, I know better. You will notice how there was no criticism of MLG's egregious overreach to begin with here, nor her arrogant attitude and comments about those legislators with the temerity to challenge her dictatorial rule. All that was done was to dream up excuses and try to justify her outrageous interpretation of the law and her actions. That speaks volumes about the hypocrisy of this Op/Ed.

Chris Mechels

What this demonstrated is that Democratic Legislators suing over their Constitutional role can prevail. Republican suits on essentially the same issue failed. The Judges were protecting themselves, as they were at risk of being a laughing stock.

Mike Johnson

The esteemed editorial board is eating crow here, and acting like they enjoy it, as we know they would have written an even more stirring and emphatic approval of MLG if it had gone the other way. We know what you really think Inez.

Jason Barker

The Guv has won all the cases but this one, so yes the the state Supreme Court clearly sits in the pocket of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham...our state Supreme Court is a joke when compared to other blue states.

Barry Rabkin

Clearly, the Governor is following the laws of NM. Similarly, when your candidate loses an election, the election is NOT rigged.

Mike Johnson


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