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Employees fired by attorney general win court decision

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Nineteen lawyers and other employees fired when Attorney General Hector Balderas took office four years ago may be entitled to protection under the state Personnel Act, the state Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.

In a 23-page opinion issued Tuesday, a panel of state judges ruled the ex-employees are covered by the Personnel Act unless certain exceptions written into the law apply to them.

The ruling reversed a decision by the New Mexico State Personnel Board and ordered the board to reconsider whether the employees are entitled to protection under the Personnel Act.

Under the law, employees who have been wrongly terminated can seek back pay and reinstatement to their prior jobs or similar ones.

Attorney General Hector Balderas

Attorney General Hector Balderas

Balderas, who won reelection last year, said he will appeal Tuesday’s decision.

“I was elected by the people of New Mexico to hire the highest quality professionals that will aggressively protect families,” he said in a written statement. “I respectfully disagree with the Court of Appeals and will appeal this decision, as this constitutionally independent office should not be limited in hiring exempt employees.”

At issue in the case is whether employees in the Attorney General’s Office are exempt from the typical job protections that cover state workers.

Policymaking officials, legislative staffers and some high-ranking administrators, among others, are usually considered at-will employees who can be dismissed for almost any reason.

Many of these exempt employees lose their jobs when a new elected official or administration takes over.

But much of the state workforce is in “classified” positions, meaning they can be terminated only for cause and they’re entitled to certain procedural protections, such as the right to appeal. The protection is intended to insulate them from political considerations.

The 19 ex-employees argue that’s how they should be treated. They worked in a variety of jobs in the Attorney General’s Office, including as lawyers, special agents and paralegals.

In arguments before the Personnel Board four years ago, they said about 40 people altogether were fired in the 2014-15 transition. They described the acts as “unlawful mass terminations” and “a gross abuse of state governmental power.”

The turnover came when Balderas, a Democrat, succeeded Gary King, also a Democrat. There were about 180 employees in the office at the time.

The case ended up in District Court, which sent the issue directly to the Court of Appeals.

The lower court said the case should go to the appeals court because the legal questions “address an issue of substantial importance because they implicate the New Mexico Attorney General’s authority to hire and fire at will, which affects not only (the ex-employees in the case), but also all current and future employees” of the office.

Tuesday’s Court of Appeals opinion was written by retired Supreme Court Justice Edward Chávez, who served as a temporary judge in the case. Michael Bustamante, also a judge pro tempore, and Court of Appeals Judge Linda Vanzi concurred.

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