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NM Supreme Court court may hear prison population case

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Inmates might get a second chance at getting their case heard over cruel and unusual confinement conditions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The New Mexico Court of Appeals issued an order transferring a case filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and others on behalf of people incarcerated in state prisons to the Supreme Court on Tuesday, citing significant public interest in the case and questions of law under the New Mexico Constitution. As of Friday, the Supreme Court hasn’t indicated whether it would hear the case. But even if the court hears the case, it would only be deciding whether inmates have to exhaust administrative procedures before filing a lawsuit. If the high court rules in the plaintiffs’ favor, it would most likely be sent back to district court to play out.

The ACLU of New Mexico, the New Mexico Criminal Defense Association and several inmates originally filed the lawsuit against the New Mexico Corrections Department, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and other state officials in August.

At her news conference Thursday, Lujan Grisham addressed the appeal. She said corrections facilities are a tough environment during a pandemic, and it becomes even tougher to prevent spikes in cases when people are living in confined spaces, such as prisons.

Paul Haidle, executive director of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said both Lujan Grisham and the department had been notified about the potential lawsuit. The association sent them numerous letters about inmate safety concerns during the pandemic.

Lalita Moskowitz, ACLU staff attorney, said she’s happy the Court of Appeals recognized this as an issue of great public importance and urgency. She said she hopes the Supreme Court will hear this issue quickly.

“We got dismissed before we got an opportunity to actually present our full argument on the merits of this issue,” Moskowitz said.

The original lawsuit alleged inmates in state prisons are being kept in conditions that qualify as cruel and unusual punishment due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There have been 1,420 COVID-19 cases across 11 New Mexico Corrections Department facilities in the state as of Saturday.

First Judicial District Judge Matthew Wilson dismissed the case Oct. 20 due to lack of subject matter jurisdiction. He said the inmates must exhaust all administrative remedies before filing a lawsuit.

However, on appeal the plaintiffs argued inmates shouldn’t have to exhaust administrative remedies before filing a lawsuit because “pursuit of administrative remedies is futile in this case.” Requiring administrative remedies before a lawsuit in emergent situations like COVID-19 violates the state Constitution, they said.

Moskowitz said an ideal outcome would be for the state to reduce its prison population.

She said they’ve asked the court to appoint a “special master” to help implement reductions including releasing people on technical parole, probation violations, people within a year of release who could be released safely and people facing nonserious charges.

Haidle said just recently a 70-year-old man died from COVID-19 while he was in prison.

“I think the obvious question is how dangerous is this 70-year-old man that (he) couldn’t be paroled out to be with (his) family in the midst of a pandemic?” he said.