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GOP legislators seek to void public health orders

House Minority Leader James Townend

House Minority Leader James Townsend. (Journal file)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Two Republican legislative leaders in the House are asking the state Supreme Court to strike down New Mexico’s emergency public health orders.

They filed a friend-of-the-court brief in a case that otherwise challenges the state’s authority to levy $5,000 daily fines on businesses that violate health orders.

The brief goes further than the initial lawsuit – by asking the justices to void the orders altogether, not just rule on the fines.

It was filed by House Minority Leader James Townsend of Artesia, House Minority Whip Rod Montoya of Farmington, the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association and the New Mexico Business Coalition.

They say the health orders are beyond the legal authority of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration and have caused “staggering” economic damage.

“The orders are overreaching, vague and ambiguous at many critical points, and lack any basic due process protection,” the filing contends.

In a written statement, Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said the public health orders – and the state’s ability to enforce them – are “explicitly created by and allowed by state statute.” Furthermore, she said, if the legislators take issue with the state’s health and emergency laws, they should propose changing them through the legislative process.

“It continues to be incredibly disappointing that they seem to value attempting to score political points over protecting the health and safety of New Mexicans, including their own constituents,” Sackett said.

The Lujan Grisham administration ordered the closure of nonessential businesses this spring as part of a broader plan to limit the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease that has contributed to the deaths of 476 New Mexicans.

But state officials are now relaxing the restrictions in phases every few weeks, citing a decline in the transmission rate of the disease.

In May, about a dozen business owners and companies – with support from the state Republican Party – filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s authority to issue $5,000 fines for violating health orders.

Attorneys for Lujan Grisham in June asked the Supreme Court to resolve the question, contending it was a novel legal issue but that state law empowers the administration, in emergencies, to levy the large fines as part of its police powers.

The case is now pending before the Supreme Court.

Besides GOP legislative leaders, a pawnshop in Grants – represented by attorney Zachary Cook, a Republican state representative from Ruidoso – also moved to join the case. Papa’s Pawn said the state has threatened the store with a $60,000 fine for remaining open for 12 days in defiance of state health orders.

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