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Legislators to weigh amended proposal for NM civil rights law

The scales of justice outside the Bernalillo County Courthouse. (Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE — The sponsors of a proposal to establish a state Civil Rights Act said Friday that a new version of the bill will include a $2 million cap on damages — a change intended to address the financial concerns of cities and counties.

But supporters of the bill also made it clear they aren’t necessarily convinced the financial fears are justified.

In an online news conference, retired state Supreme Court Justice Richard Bosson said he and other members of a commission that worked on the bill sought testimony from insurance agents and government officials about the financial impact of the legislation.

And they made changes to reflect that input, including a prohibition on punitive damages. The new version of the bill will also include a $2 million cap on overall damages.

“I don’t know how they can still argue the sky is falling,” Bosson said.

Cities and counties were evaluating the new version Friday. They have previously raised concern about increased costs borne by taxpayers and argued it would be better to pursue preventative measures — such as better training — to curb government wrongdoing.

The proposal, House Bill 4, is set for a hearing Monday before the House Judiciary Committee, which will consider whether to send it on to the full House.

The measure would establish a New Mexico Civil Rights Act, allowing plaintiffs to file a lawsuit in state court against a public body to recover damages for violations of their rights under the state Constitution.

Government agencies already can be sued in federal court for violating the U.S. Constitution, and plaintiffs can recover monetary damages if they’re successful. But New Mexico doesn’t have a similar state law allowing the recovery of damages in state court for violations of the state Constitution.

The state tort claims act allows certain claims, though damages are capped at a little over $1 million.

In federal court, meanwhile, defendants can employ the legal doctrine of qualified immunity, a standard that makes it easier to win dismissal of a suit. The proposed Civil Rights Act prohibits qualified immunity as a defense against claims filed under the act.

Rep. Georgene Louis, an Albuquerque Democrat and co-sponsor of the legislation, said the new version would help address the financial fears of governments while leveling the playing field in court.

“For many New Mexicans who have had their rights violated,” she said, “it is very much a David and Goliath situation.”

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