SANTA FE – A long-simmering dispute between Gov. Susana Martinez and top state legislators ended with the gavel trumping the veto pen.
The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday the governor did not follow proper constitutional procedures last year in vetoing 10 different bills that, for the most part, had passed the Legislature with broad bipartisan support.
The ruling puts an end to a nearly yearlong court battle and means the bills in question essentially take effect immediately. It also sets a legal precedent.
“The ruling today makes it clear it has to be done right,” Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, told reporters after Wednesday’s hearing. “I don’t think you’ll ever see a governor again not submit reasoning (along with vetoed bills) and that’s really important.”
Wirth and other top-ranking Democratic lawmakers had argued the 10 vetoes were not properly carried out because the governor either took too long to act on them or did not provide an explanation with each vetoed bill.
They filed a lawsuit over the vetoed bills last summer, after a contentious 60-day session in which legislative leaders sparred frequently with the Governor’s Office over budget issues.
Martinez, the state’s second-term Republican governor, has maintained the vetoes were valid. They came in a flurry in the final days of the 2017 session, after the Senate had voted to override Martinez’s veto of a bill dealing with teacher absences. A subsequent override vote in the House failed to gain enough support to succeed.
The Martinez administration has clashed frequently with the judicial branch in recent years – most recently over pretrial detention for defendants accused of violent offenses – and a spokeswoman for the governor called the Supreme Court’s ruling disappointing but not surprising.
“Today’s ruling shows one can pick and choose when it comes to following the Constitution,” Martinez spokeswoman Emilee Cantrell said Wednesday. “There is no dispute these bills were vetoed and yet partisan legislators along with submissive judges can circumvent an entire branch of government.”
The Supreme Court’s decision upheld a district judge’s ruling in August 2017 that invalidated the governor’s vetoes. The state’s highest court had temporarily blocked the bills from becoming law in January after Martinez filed an appeal.
During Wednesday’s hourlong hearing, Martinez’s attorney Paul Kennedy argued the District Court judge had erred in the initial ruling. He also said lawmakers received veto messages for five of the contested vetoes within the three-day period stipulated by the Constitution, leaving enough time for legislators to make changes to the bills or attempt an override vote.
But the Supreme Court justices didn’t seem impressed by the arguments, with Justice Charles Daniels at one point remarking, “This is the only instance of the governor not sending messages over in the history of the state.”
They then issued the ruling after deliberating for just over one hour. The five-member panel included District Court Judge James Hudson of Roswell, who was designated to sit in on the case since Justice Edward Chávez recently retired and the governor’s pick to replace him has not formally joined the court.
In announcing the decision, Supreme Court Chief Justice Judith Nakamura, also a Martinez appointee, dismissed the procedural concerns that had been raised and said the case boiled down to a simple question of law.
“The Constitution requires the objections must accompany the allegedly vetoed bills,” Nakamura said. “Because the objections did not accompany the bills, they became law.”
At least one of the 10 bills has essentially already been enacted, as the Public Education Department announced earlier this week it was moving forward with a plan to allow computer science to count toward high school math and science requirements.
In addition to the computer science legislation, other bills in question included measures allowing industrial hemp to be grown for research purposes, clarifying drug testing requirements for racehorses and giving local governments more leeway to expand broadband access.
The lawsuit was authorized via closed-door vote by the Legislative Council, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, but GOP lawmakers have been largely silent about the effort.
Senate Republican floor leader Stuart Ingle of Portales said Wednesday the constitutional language on veto procedures has been in place since statehood and is unambiguous.
“I sure didn’t think it was going to go any other way,” Ingle said of the lawsuit’s outcome.