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Supreme Court blocks part of new election law

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled Monday that parts of a new election law that could have shifted the election cycles for district attorneys, county officials and some state judges are unconstitutional and should not be implemented next year.

The ruling directs Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver to put the offices in question on the primary and general election ballots in 2020 – as previously planned – instead of pushing back their election dates to 2022.

However, the unanimous ruling by a three-justice panel did not appear to strike down the entire law – officially called a “50-year tuneup” of the state’s election laws – but rather blocks certain parts of it from taking effect.

Eight district attorneys filed a court challenge in June, two months after the 472-page bill took effect, arguing that the state Constitution sets four-year terms for prosecutors.

They said in their petition that the new law created a “substantial public crisis” that warranted the court’s intervention. Specifically, they claimed the law would result in current officeholders either serving a six-year term in office or being ousted from office after four years without an election.

Alamogordo District Attorney John Sugg, who spearheaded the legal effort, said Monday that the new law could have also created a legal gray area that might have affected criminal prosecutions.

He said the Supreme Court’s ruling avoids such potential problems, while providing more certainty about next year’s election cycle for both incumbents and potential challengers.

“Now it’s back to the status quo, basically,” Sugg told the Journal.

The sponsors of the law had said in a court filing of their own that the district attorneys were inadvertently shifted into a different election cycle during the bill-drafting process.

The bill sponsors, Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, and Rep. Linda Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, had also argued the issue could be cleared up by the Legislature during the 30-day session that begins in January.

“That was an honest mistake on our part, and we were willing to fix it,” Ivey-Soto said Monday.

The circumstances were slightly different for the changes in election timing for some judges and county officials. The new law called for at least some of those elections to be staggered between presidential and gubernatorial election cycles, so that not all judicial retention elections would fall in the same year.

But those changes were challenged by the New Mexico Association of Counties and a coalition of state judges and Metro Court judges, respectively, and the Supreme Court also halted them from being implemented.

The Supreme Court had been scheduled to hold oral arguments on the case next month. But in its Monday rulings, the state’s highest court scrapped the planned arguments and said the implementation of some parts of the new election law would be an “unconstitutional alteration” to existing terms of office for the various elected officials affected by the change.

Ivey-Soto described the court’s ruling as “surgical” but said it was unfortunate the ruling was handed down before oral arguments could be presented.

“They followed the conventional view of the law in the state,” he said, adding that similar changes have been enacted and upheld in other states.

Ivey-Soto also said he intends to push for a constitutional amendment in next year’s legislative session that, if approved, would pave the way for future changes in election timing.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court indicated it plans to follow up with a longer written order in the case later.

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