Editorial: Redistricting Attorney Fees Remain ‘Shocking’

If you’ve ever wondered whether partisan gridlock carries a cost, look no further than New Mexico’s redistricting court battle to get a glimpse of it on a small scale.

The price for litigation to redraw political boundaries after the 2010 census has hit $5.6 million. The redistricting go-round a decade ago, which also ended up in court, cost taxpayers about $3.77 million.

Retired state District Judge James Hall, who presided over four trials in 2011 and 2012 and who awarded six plaintiffs’ lawyers nearly $3 million in attorney fees, blamed both the Democrat-led Legislature and Republican Gov. Susana Martinez for choosing “the path of litigation to redistrict the state” instead of negotiation and political compromise.

“When the legislative and executive branches fail to comply with their legal obligation, all taxpayers bear the financial consequences,” the judge wrote Monday in an order setting payments for lawyers representing Democrats, Republicans and minorities.

The task of drawing new maps for U.S. House and state House and Senate districts and the Public Regulation Commission moved to court after the Legislature failed to pass a congressional map and the governor vetoed the PRC and legislative maps passed in a special session.

In addition to the $3 million in the latest round of money paid to lawyers, almost $800,000 in other trial-related costs had been agreed to earlier. The Legislature also paid almost $900,000 for lawyers representing Democratic legislative leaders and for work done by Research & Polling Inc. The state Risk Management Division has paid almost $700,000 to lawyers under contract to represent Martinez, Lt. Gov. John Sanchez and Secretary of State Dianna Duran. It also has paid almost $340,000 in other legal costs for them. The governor’s staff lawyers, who put in nearly 1,200 hours on redistricting, were paid their normal state wages.

Interestingly, Hall as a pro-tem judge, received just $25,111 for his work.

When lawyers for Democratic and Indian plaintiffs presented their bills, the governor and the other GOP defendants decried the amounts as “shocking.” But Hall, after trimming three of the plaintiffs’ requests by about 10 percent, noted that “apparently, the executive defendants’ line between ‘shocking’ and ‘not shocking’ is approximately $600,000.” Presumably, that remarks stems from the fact that a lawyer for Republican plaintiffs submitted a bill for $582,697, which ended up being paid at $488,267.

Perhaps if both camps had been able to work through the partisan gridlock that plagues the country, New Mexicans wouldn’t be suffering sticker shock, and $5.6 million could have been put to better use.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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