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Gov. asks justices to uphold $5,000 fines

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham

SANTA FE – Attorneys for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham are asking the state Supreme Court to resolve legal questions over the administration’s authority to issue hefty fines for violating emergency public health orders.

The request comes after about a dozen business owners and companies accused Lujan Grisham of improperly threatening businesses with daily $5,000 fines if they reopen their businesses in violation of the health orders.

The businesses filed a lawsuit – backed by the Republican Party of New Mexico – in state District Court challenging the fines.

The Supreme Court issued an order staying the lower-court proceedings and asking the plaintiffs to respond to the governor’s petition by this coming Monday. The justices, however, haven’t decided whether to take the case.

Lujan Grisham attorneys Matthew Garcia and Jonathan Guss urged the Supreme Court to step in now rather than let the lawsuit work its way through other courts, only to reach the justices eventually.

The state’s ability to issue meaningful fines “is a novel legal issue with significant public safety and health implications for all New Mexicans,” they said in a 30-page petition.

At stake are the size of the fines Lujan Grisham’s administration can issue and whether the state would have to compensate business owners for financial losses triggered by state-mandated closures.

The plaintiffs, for example, say the state is limited by law to fines of $100 or less, not the $5,000 penalty cited by Lujan Grisham’s administration.

Her attorneys, however, say the state has emergency authority as part of its police powers to levy the larger fines – necessary to ensure enforcement of public health orders during an emergency such as the coronavirus pandemic.

The temporary closure of businesses, the state says, doesn’t entitle the owners to compensation.

The plaintiffs include the owners of K-Bob’s Steakhouse in Clovis, an outdoor mercado in the Socorro area, Frontier Auto Inc., Body & Sol Fitness, Kemp’s Investments, Colfax Tavern & Diner, and J. Jones Massage.

They filed suit in Curry County, where the case was assigned to Judge David Reeb in the 9th Judicial District.

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