Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – The New Mexico Supreme Court has granted Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s request to halt at least three attempts to convene citizen-led grand juries for the purpose of investigating the governor’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The petitions to convene citizen grand juries – filed in Eddy, Lea and Chaves counties – mark the latest challenges to the governor’s use of emergency public health orders to require face-mask wearing and impose business capacity limits in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus.
New Mexico is one of just a few states that allows for citizen grand jury proceedings, which under the state Constitution require a certain number of voter signatures be provided in order for a judge to convene such a grand jury.
Grand juries are typically used by prosecutors in order to indict individuals for alleged criminal wrongdoing.
Sen. David Gallegos, R-Eunice, was one of several individuals leading the push for the little-known citizen grand juries to investigate alleged “malfeasance” on the governor’s part. But he said his involvement in the effort was as a citizen, not in his role as state senator.
He also expressed frustration at the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision this week to grant the Governor’s Office’s request for a stay – or hold – on the petitions pending further court filings.
“You would think at some point in time the people could be heard,” Gallegos told the Journal.
The Supreme Court’s ruling to put the petitions for citizen-led grand juries on ice came the same week the court sided with a bipartisan group of legislators who challenged Lujan Grisham’s authority to unilaterally spend roughly $1.7 billion in federal relief funds.
Before that ruling, the state’s highest court had upheld the legality of Lujan Grisham’s pandemic-related actions in several other cases over the past two years, including a challenge over barring indoor restaurant dining.
And the Governor’s Office referenced those victories in its court filing seeking to have the latest petitions put on hold and ultimately rejected.
“Though controversial to some, the governor’s pandemic measures have been consistently upheld by the courts – including this court,” the governor’s general counsel Holly Agajanian wrote in the 20-page filing.
She also described the petitions for citizen grand juries as a “creative scheme,” but said they must be rejected since the Constitution only allows such grand juries to investigate statewide elected officials for possible criminal activity.
In addition, the alleged crimes of “malfeasance in office, misfeasance in office, violation of oath of office and maladministration” are not backed up by evidence or supported by previous court rulings, the Governor’s Office argued.
“While the citizens filing the petitions may disagree with the governor’s approach to the pandemic, none of these allegations even remotely demonstrate that she has committed any crime,” Agajanian said in the court filing. “To the contrary, every court that has heard a challenge to the governor’s pandemic response has upheld the measures as constitutional and proper.”
The governor’s court filing also argued Lujan Grisham has no way to respond to the citizen grand jury petitions – or even find out exactly how many have been filed – since such proceedings are typically sealed under court rules.
Gallegos, who is also a Eunice school board member, said he believes this is the first time the constitutional provision for citizen-led grand juries has been used.
He also said proponents of the petitions have also been collecting voter signatures in other New Mexico counties, but they might not be able to file them due to the Supreme Court’s hold on the cases.
“I’d like to know why they didn’t let the process work,” he said, referring to the court.
In its Tuesday order preventing the citizen grand jury petitions from moving forward, the Supreme Court ordered that the grand jury proponents file responses in the case by Dec. 6.