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.