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‘Taming New Mexico’ follows evolution of the law over 300 years

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Many peculiarities found in the Land of Enchantment can still be considered remnants of the Wild West. One of them is the law.

And the evolution of law in these parts is behind the new documentary “Taming New Mexico.” The film will premiere at 7 tonight on KNME channel 5.1 and then be rebroadcast at 6 p.m. May 21, on channel 9.1. It may play nationally on PBS stations in July.

The hourlong program explores the history, issues and human drama that shaped New Mexico’s federal judicial system.

Executive producer Michael Kamins says the documentary shows how New Mexico transitioned from the Spanish-American rule of law, through the Territorial period to statehood. And it ends with today’s legal system.

Kamins serves as executive producer and worked with filmmaker Anthony DellaFlora to produce the segment.

“The most difficult part was going through 300 years of the system,” Kamins says. “Choosing which stories to tell was very important. Anthony wrote the script and did all the footwork. Then we decided what to look at for the film.”

The story goes as far back as Doña Teresa de Aguilera y Roche, as she confronted the Spanish Inquisition in the 17th century.

U.S. Courthouse, Santa Fe, 1885. (Courtesy of The Palace Of The Governors Archives/Robert McCubbin)

Doña Teresa was a privileged, educated, tenacious and outspoken woman who was not afraid to voice her complaints about living in what she considered a hardship outpost in dusty Santa Fe.

In the mid-1600s, those complaints, combined with her misunderstood ways and the hardball politics of the day that pitted state against church, brought her under the scrutiny of the Spanish Inquisition, whose reach crossed an ocean into the Americas.

Her misfortune came in part from the fact that she was married to Bernardo López de Mendizábal, governor in Santa Fe from 1659 to 1661.

The pair were imprisoned in Mexico City on various charges, including that they were crypto-Jews. She fought to prove their innocence, even after her husband’s death.

“Her story is amazing,” Kamins says. “It really shows the viewers a different time.”

Another spotlighted case is Wen Ho Lee, who worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

In December 1999, the scientist was indicted on charges of stealing secrets about the U.S. nuclear arsenal for China. Federal investigators were unable to prove the accusations, and Lee pleaded guilty to improper handling of restricted data.

Lincoln County Courthouse, c. 1880. (Courtesy of The Palace of the Governors Archives/Robert McCubbin)

Kamins and DellaFlora enlisted the help of University of New Mexico history professor Paul Hutton.

He was involved from the very beginning of the project and wanted to be in the conversation of explaining why the courts in New Mexico are unique.

“The issues are different from other parts of the country,” Hutton says. “And in the federal courts, there are a wide range of issues that judges have to deal with. I came away with a renewed respect for what they do.”

Kamins says, “New Mexico is probably one of the most diverse places to practice law. Practicing law in the state means that judges must know water and land laws, immigration laws and Native laws.”

Hutton says that courts and judges get a bad rap in today’s society.

“We’ve seen a lot of that recently,” Hutton says. “We wanted to show how difficult it is to be a judge in New Mexico. We wanted to put it into context that an audience would understand. Truth is, outside of the courtroom, the average person doesn’t know the intricacies of the court system.”

To do so, the team got access to federal judges, state historians, civil rights attorneys and law professors.

Hutton says it was extremely important to have access to these people.

“Each one was able to tell their story,” he says. “With the federal judges, the viewer gets an opportunity to see exactly what goes on in the courts. I think the documentary is well done and informative.”

“Taming New Mexico” is narrated by legendary journalist Sam Donaldson.

“Sam was the perfect choice for narrator,” Kamins says. “He understands what it’s about and what we were trying to convey. And he’s interested in New Mexico history.”

DellaFlora says, “After watching, you’ll have a much better understanding of why New Mexico is the way it is today. Establishing law and order here has never been an easy task.”

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