The state Court of Appeals has overturned a district judge’s order requiring the state Office of the Medical Investigator to rule that the manner of a prominent Albuquerque attorney’s 2010 death was unknown.
The Court of Appeals’ ruling Monday said the judge abused his discretion by ordering the Office of the Medical Investigator to change its finding that lawyer Mary Han’s death was a suicide, as police believed.
Han’s family plans to appeal the ruling.
“For this family, the arc of the moral universe is indeed a long one, but we believe justice has always been on our side,” Diane Garrity, an attorney for the family, said in a statement. “We intend to ask the New Mexico Supreme Court to review this decision. We will continue to seek justice on Mary’s behalf.”
OMI praised the ruling.
“The Office of the Medical Investigator appreciates the decision of the New Mexico Court of Appeals that we believe upholds the law and reverses the lower court’s decision in this case,” spokesman Mark Rudi said in a statement. “Our commitment continues to be to investigate deaths to serve the living. Our thoughts are with the Han family as they continue to grieve the loss of their loved one.”
Han was found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning in a vehicle in her garage, and her estate argued that police violated state constitutional protections for Han as a crime victim when her death was investigated.
Then-1st Judicial District Judge David Thomson ruled, in part, that the Albuquerque Police Department’s investigation into Han’s death was so flawed that OMI couldn’t reach a conclusion of suicide and should make changes to her death certificate. Thomson, who is now serving on the state Supreme Court, said OMI’s conclusion was “arbitrary and capricious.”
But the appellate court said Thomson erred by granting the writ of mandamus ordering OMI to change the manner of death. Specifically, it held that writs of mandamus can be issued only to direct a government official to carry out a ministerial duty, a function that is required and that doesn’t involve discretion.
“This directive exceeded the proper bounds of mandamus because Respondent’s conclusion as to manner of death is not a ministerial act,” Judge Jacqueline R. Medina wrote in the opinion. “Rather, based on the record before us, we hold that it is an opinion reached through the exercise of discretion.”
The Appeals Court said other avenues besides mandamus exist to challenge administrative decisions for being arbitrary, an abuse of discretion or unsupported by substantial evidence. Judge Kristina Bogardus and Judge Pro Tempore Richard C. Bosson joined in the opinion.
The Appeals Court upheld Thomson’s ruling that Han’s family is not entitled to recover attorney fees.