Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – A nine-member state commission has voted to recommend enactment of a New Mexico Civil Rights Act that would allow legal claims to be filed in state court over alleged infringements of free speech, freedom of religion and other constitutional rights.
The proposed law, which is expected to be debated during the upcoming 60-day legislative session, would not allow the legal doctrine of qualified immunity to be used as a defense in such cases, following a path already taken by Colorado and other states.
However, under the draft bill, individual law enforcement officers and other types of public officials would not be personally liable to pay any court-ordered damages.
Instead, such damages would be paid by the public agency or body that employs the defendant, as is currently the practice under state law.
Retired state Supreme Court Justice Richard Bosson, the Civil Rights Commission’s chairman, said in a Friday statement the proposed law would “provide a legal vehicle for New Mexico citizens to fully enforce rights granted them by the New Mexico Constitution without importing artificial obstacles to the truth-seeking process such as qualified immunity.”
The Civil Rights Commission was created under a bill passed by lawmakers during a June special session that was signed into law by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
The nine-member commission includes attorneys, judges and law enforcement officials. Its members were appointed by the governor and legislative leaders.
After holding seven meetings in recent months during which commission members heard expert testimony on legal and law enforcement issues, the commission was ultimately split on endorsing the proposed Civil Rights Act.
While a majority of members favored recommending the legislation and an accompanying report, a minority voted in opposition and will draft its own report.
Both reports are expected to be presented to legislative committees in the run-up to the 60-day session that’s set to start in January.
But House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said Friday he supports the proposed Civil Rights Act and will push for its passage during the upcoming session.
“I think giving New Mexicans the ability to vindicate their constitutional rights in a New Mexico courtroom is of fundamental importance,” Egolf told the Journal.
He also said he would strive to make sure public employees’ concerns about the proposed new law – including increased insurance rates – are addressed.
Under the proposed law, claims of constitutional rights deprivations would be filed in state District Courts around New Mexico.
Currently, such claims can be filed in federal court but not in state courts.
In addition to creating a state framework for alleged constitutional infringements, the proposed state Civil Rights Act would bar the use of qualified immunity as a legal defense.
Qualified immunity is a legal principle that shields government officials – including police officers – from lawsuits except in cases where a plaintiff can prove that officials violated their “clearly established” rights, a high legal threshold that leads to many cases being dismissed.
Debate over qualified immunity and other police use-of-force issues intensified this summer after a series of incidents in New Mexico and around the nation, including the death of George Floyd, an African American man, while in the custody of Minneapolis police officers.
Meanwhile, all public bodies would have to keep a file of all judgments and settlements under the proposed Civil Rights Act, and make such records available under the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act.
In addition, the proposed law would allow plaintiffs to seek compensatory but not punitive damages, meaning court judgments would only cover direct costs of injuries or losses incurred.