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NM civil rights bill advances to full Senate

In this Feb. 16 file photo, House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, talks with Republican leadership during a debate in the House. Egolf is a co-sponsor of legislation to create a state Civil Rights Act. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A proposal to establish a New Mexico Civil Rights Act – one of the most fiercely debated bills of the session – narrowly survived a key Senate committee late Wednesday and moved closer to final passage at the Roundhouse.

The legislation, House Bill 4, emerged out of last summer’s protests against racism and police brutality.

It would allow lawsuits to be filed in state court to recover financial damages for violations of the New Mexico Bill of Rights, such as freedom of speech and equal protection under the law.

Agencies that provide insurance for public schools and county governments vigorously opposed the bill, contending they already face extensive legal exposure for wrongdoing.

The bill cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 5-4 vote and will head next to the full Senate, the last significant hurdle before the governor’s desk. The House passed the bill 39-29 last month.

Leon Howard of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico urged legislators “to think about the most vulnerable people in our state” as they consider the bill.

“This act represents better and more timely access to justice,” he said Wednesday.

But opponents of the bill said the measure would do nothing to improve policing while exposing taxpayers to costly settlements after the fact on a range of potential claims, not just law enforcement.

Santa Fe County Attorney Greg Shaffer urged senators to make changes to the bill to avoid “exposing local governments to potentially crippling risk” that could cause them to lose some insurance coverage.

“This shifting of risk impacts all citizens,” Shaffer said. “More money for insurance or claims means less money for essential services or higher taxes.”

The Judiciary Committee made some changes to the bill but rejected other proposed amendments, even ones agreed to by House Speaker Brian Egolf, a Santa Fe Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill.

The committee, for example, made clear that the bill’s $2 million cap on damages would apply to each individual involved in an “occurrence” that led to a claim. In other words, one person couldn’t get around the $2 million cap by asserting multiple claims tied to the same violation of rights.

But senators rejected a proposed amendment that would have made it discretionary – not mandatory – for a court to award attorney fees to a successful plaintiff who won financial damages.

Egolf said he supported both amendments as part of a compromise with skeptics of the bill.

But another co-sponsor of the measure, Democratic Sen. Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces, opposed the amendment on legal fees.

In the end, the proposal passed 5-4 with support from five Democrats and opposition by three Republicans and Democratic Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto of Albuquerque.

Ivey-Soto, who proposed most of the amendments considered Wednesday, said the Legislature needed to “listen to some of the concerns of people who have been trying to offer some constructive commentary about the bill.”

The proposal heads next to the full Senate for consideration. If approved by senators, it will go back to the House for consideration of the Senate changes to the bill.

Egolf, an attorney, faces an ethics complaint in connection with the legislation. A retired judge has accused him of a conflict of interest, contending he and his law firm stand to benefit from passage of the bill because of their work on civil rights cases.

Egolf is seeking dismissal of the complaint, contending the allegations are unfounded and rely, in part, on a section of law that doesn’t apply to New Mexico’s unsalaried legislators.

House Bill 4 surfaced out of the work of a state Civil Rights Commission established last year shortly after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Floyd, a Black man, died after a white police officer pressed a knee into his neck, igniting protests throughout the country, including New Mexico.

Under the proposed legislation, qualified immunity would be barred as a defense against claims filed under the state Civil Rights Act.

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