As the coronavirus panic train continues to pick up steam, there have been calls to virtually shut down New Mexico’s court system by drastically limiting criminal proceedings and closing down civil ones.
While serious precautions are indeed necessary — the courts have implemented a wide range of measures to protect the health of the public and judicial employees — the system simply can’t close.
The state courts heard more than 337,000 cases last year — about 75 percent of them civil matters. The system already is backlogged, and a widespread shutdown would make it virtually impossible to ever dig out. And in a time of crisis, it’s worth recalling some of the critical functions the courts perform. Among them, protective orders for victims of domestic violence, pretrial detention decisions in criminal cases — no, we can’t let virus fears mean dangerous criminal defendants stay on the streets; felony appearances and arraignments and for that matter any cases that might arise from the state’s emergency health restrictions. That would include enforcing Department of Health orders.
The courts are considered exempt from the public health orders. But they moved quickly, forming an emergency response team the same day — March 11 — Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham first declared a public health emergency. The Supreme Court formed an emergency response team — and ordered one be established in every district. It immediately implemented restrictions and has continued to improve its protocols since.