It began with a surprise announcement by the Dona Ana County Clerk: Lynn Ellins said he had carefully read the state’s marriage statutes and saw nothing to prohibit him from issuing licenses to same-sex couples. Within days, judges in Santa Fe and Albuquerque presiding over lawsuits on the issue came to the same conclusions and same-sex couples were lining up across New Mexico’s most populous counties to tie the knot.
By the end of the year, the Supreme Court weighed in, making New Mexico the 17th state to legalize gay marriage.
From dying cancer patients to one of the state’s top lobbyists on gay issues, more than 1,400 same-sex couples had been married in New Mexico even before the state Supreme Court ruled that the Equal Protection Clause of the state Constitution means the government cannot treat people differently based on sexual orientation.
The decision and the legal maneuverings were among the stories that dominated the headlines in 2013.
Among the other top New Mexico stories of the year:
DROUGHT AND FLOODS
After three years without any meaningful snow or summer rain, New Mexico sunk into what climate experts and water managers deemed as an unprecedented drought. Years in the making, the drought in 2013 saw the state’s major reservoirs reach record-low levels, and stretches of the Rio Grande and Pecos rivers went dry. The dry conditions combined with aging infrastructure and a lack of maintenance to leave some small communities without drinking water.
At its peak during the summer, maps of the state showed it awash in red as the two worst categories of drought — extreme and exceptional — plagued more than 90 percent of New Mexico.
Then came the torrential downpours. Parts of southeastern New Mexico saw storms in August that dumped a few inches of rain in just 24 hours. The next month, the state recorded its second wettest September as historic amounts of rain fell and some communities were left with flood damage.
Despite opposition from some teachers and Democratic lawmakers, Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration moved forward in 2013 with a new teacher evaluation system.
The system, which affects about 18,000 teachers statewide, uses a variety of factors to measure teacher performance. Half of a teacher’s rating is based on students’ standardized test scores and another 25 percent relies on classroom observations.
The heavy emphasis on test scores has been a point of contention, sparking protests, talks of strikes and a lawsuit by teachers unions and some lawmakers. A state District Court judge in November refused to stop implementation of the system, but the unions and some lawmakers want to take their case to the Court of Appeals. They claim the system violates state laws.
Martinez and officials with the Public Education Department have argued that the system marks an important step away from the status quo in New Mexico, which routinely finishes near the bottom nationally when it comes to the educational success of students.
For a second year, the fight by a small slaughterhouse in Roswell to resume domestic horse slaughter made national headlines with high-profile legal wrangling and a series of false starts.
Valley Meat Co. was preparing to open at the beginning of 2014 after a federal appeals court in December lifted an emergency stay on its plants.
Valley began the year fighting in court to force the Department of Agriculture to permit its operations in light of congressional action in 2011 that lifted a ban on horse slaughter. But once it did, The Humane Society of the United States and other groups sued to block Valley’s plans to open in August. The animal groups lost the suit but won another temporary order on appeal that was later lifted.
The ongoing emotional debate over whether horses are pets or livestock is far from over.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals still must hear the case, and New Mexico Attorney General Gary King stepped into the fray in December with state action seeking to halt Valley’s plans.
Albuquerque unexpectedly became ground zero in the abortion wars in 2013 after opponents decided to take a new tact in the fight to shutter Southwestern Women’s Options, one of the country’s few late-term abortion clinics.
Unable to make headway in the Legislature, abortion opponents led by former Operation Rescue interns Tara and Bud Shaver gathered enough signatures to place a late-term abortion ban on the municipal ballot.
It is believed to be the first such referendum of its kind in the country and was watched closely as a possible new front for activism in the abortion wars that have typically been waged at the federal and state levels.
Voters rejected the measure 55 percent to 45 percent following an emotional and graphic campaign that brought in national groups and hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising.
Those who succeeded in putting the proposal to a historic vote vowed their fight is not over.
MENTAL HEALTH AUDIT
A shake-up of the state’s mental health services caused disruption and difficulties for patients and prompted lawsuits by media groups after the Human Services Department and Attorney General Gary King both refused to release an audit that reportedly found possible overbillings and fraud.
The department suspended payments to providers in June partly because of the findings of the audit it commissioned from a private consulting group.
Legislators have sharply criticized the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez for failing to give providers an opportunity to review and respond to the fraud allegations before freezing their Medicaid payments. The department has contracted with Arizona companies to take over for some of the suspended providers.
Citing law enforcement considerations, two judges recently refused in separate cases to order release of the audit.
The Emmy-award winning series “Breaking Bad” ended its popular run after five seasons, and the city of Albuquerque spent the last half of 2013 struggling to say goodbye.
That’s because the AMC TV show was filmed in the Duke City and attracted a swarm of tourists from around the globe hoping to catching a glimpse of the spot where a drug dealer got shot, the car wash where money was laundered and Los Pollos Hermanos –the fictional chicken restaurant used as a front by a drug lord. The show’s popularity sparked limo and bike tours, blue sugar candy “meth,” and sales of La Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, statues.
“Breaking Bad” followed former high school teacher Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston, as he made and sold methamphetamine with former student Jesse Pinkman, played by Aaron Paul.
After the show ended in October, more than 200 pretend-mourners attended a mock funeral for Walter White at an Albuquerque-area cemetery. “We all need closure,” Michael Flowers, a set decorator for the show, told the assemblage. “The show is over — and what the hell are we going to do on Sunday nights?”
In January 2013, a New Mexico teenager was accused of gunning down five family members, sending shockwaves through Albuquerque’s law enforcement and religious communities. Authorities said Nehemiah Griego, 15, shot his mother with a .22-caliber rifle as she slept. He then killed his 9-year-old brother and two younger sisters after they woke up and became upset. He then ambushed his father as he returned home from an overnight shift at a rescue mission, shooting him once in the back and chest and twice in the head.
Authorities said the teen reloaded the guns and had planned to randomly shoot Wal-Mart shoppers. Instead, he ended up confessing to killing his family after going to the church where his father, Greg Griego, had been a pastor.
Bernalillo County Sheriff Dan Houston has said the teen told detectives he was angry with his mother and had been having homicidal and suicidal thoughts.
Griego’s attorney has said he intends to launch an insanity defense.
Three years after a dramatic Arizona prison break and the gruesome murder of a retired Oklahoma couple who crossed paths with the fugitives on a New Mexico highway, inmate John McCluskey was brought to trial in the first federal death penalty case in the state in nearly a decade.
After a four-month trial, jurors in December were unable to reach a unanimous decision on whether McCluskey should be executed, so he will be sentenced to life in prison for murder, carjacking and numerous other charges for the August 2010 slayings of Gary and Linda Haas of Tecumseh, Okla.
The Haases were high school sweethearts and recent retirees who were targeted by the fugitives at a rest stop near the Texas-New Mexico border. Within an hour of being carjacked, they had been shot to death and their bodies left to burn inside their travel trailer on a remote ranch in eastern New Mexico.
After a monthlong lull in police shootings, Albuquerque at the end of the year saw a sudden spike in violent confrontations that put the embattled department back in the headlines.
In a six-week span from late October to early December, Albuquerque police were involved in five shootings, bringing to 35 the number of shootings officers in the state’s largest city have been involved in since 2010.
Critics have blamed the shootings on a departmental culture that fosters brutality, and the Department of Justice last year launched a civil rights probe of the agency.
After then-police chief Ray Schultz ordered a 2011 study, the department made changes in oversight, training and hiring of officers in response to the shootings and several other high-profile abuse cases.
Asked earlier if the latest rash of shootings indicated those reforms weren’t working, acting Chief Allen Banks blamed the criminal justice system for allowing dangerous suspects to roam the streets and putting officers in positions where they have no choice but to shoot.
Associated Press writer Russell Contreras contributed to this report.