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Justices to weigh in on Capitol closure

The Roundhouse in Santa Fe.

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The New Mexico Supreme Court will weigh in on whether the public can set foot in the Roundhouse during a budget-balancing special session set to begin Thursday.

A bipartisan group of top-ranking lawmakers voted last week to close the state Capitol to lobbyists and the public during the special session due to concerns related to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

However, a group of 24 legislators – 20 Republicans and four Democrats – subsequently filed a petition with the Supreme Court, seeking to have the decision blocked so the public can enter the building.

With the start of the special session just days away, the Supreme Court on Monday scheduled oral arguments in the case for 1:30 p.m. Tuesday.

In their court filing opposing the closure of the Roundhouse, the legislators argue that not allowing members of the public to attend the special session violates a provision in the New Mexico Constitution that stipulates that “all sessions of each house shall be public.”

The decision also infringes on New Mexicans’ right to participate in the legislative process, they claim.

However, contract attorneys for the Legislative Council, the group of 16 top lawmakers who voted to close the Roundhouse, argued Monday that the decision is not unconstitutional, because New Mexicans will still be able to listen to House and Senate committee hearings and floor sessions through online webcasting.

They also pointed out that 33 other U.S. state capitol buildings have been closed to the public due to COVID-19, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“The debate will occur – and certainly not change – whether the public physically observes the proceedings from the gallery or through a simultaneous webcast, or participates through electronic or telephone comments to committees,” the attorneys, Thomas Hnasko and Michael Browde, wrote in their court filing.

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said recently that members of the public would still be able testify on bills during the special session, despite not being allowed in the building.

He said that public testimony will be accepted during House committee hearings, either through online programs or by phone, and that all committee meetings and floor sessions will be webcast by the Legislature.

The special session will focus largely on budget adjustments in response to an estimated $2 billion revenue downturn for the coming fiscal year, caused by the pandemic and plummeting oil prices. However, some other issues could also be added to the agenda by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Both the House and Senate are expected to approve rule changes at the start of this week’s special session that would allow at least some legislators to participate remotely.

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