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PRC says it will drop out of lawsuit against Santa Fe newspaper

The Public Regulation Commission has decided to drop out of a lawsuit it filed against a Santa Fe newspaper in an effort to prevent it from publishing information related to a utility case they say is confidential.

PRC Commissioner Sandy Jones said the commission concluded it could not win the lawsuit against the Santa Fe New Mexican and there was no reason to pursue it.

“When you look at the First Amendment stuff, we didn’t have a case,” Jones told the Journal after a commission meeting Thursday.

A lawyer for the utility regulatory panel said it will file a motion with state District Court in Santa Fe  to withdraw from the case.

It was not immediately clear what the other parties in the lawsuit planned to do. The Public Service Company of New Mexico and two coal companies have intervened in the case, backing the PRC.

PNM spokesman Pahl Shipley said the utility had no comment on the PRC’s decision.

Jones told the Journal that once the commission looked more closely at the issues, it became clear the PRC wouldn’t win, and there was no reason to pursue the case.

The PRC went to state District Court after it inadvertently released coal-related contracts to a reporter for the New Mexican that it contends are confidential. They’re part of a case pending before the PRC, in which PNM wants approval to abandon two units at the San Juan Generating Station and to use replacement energy sources.

The lawsuit asked a judge to block the newspaper from publishing stories about the contracts and order the information returned to the PRC.

The New Mexican in a filing with the court earlier Thursday said that was  “blatantly unconstitutional.”

The newspaper said the PRC is asking the court to muzzle the press in violation of the First Amendment and the New Mexico Constitution. It said the regulatory panel and the companies are conspiring to chill the rights of the newspaper as well as the public.

Victor Marshall, the newspaper’s lawyer, said in his argument that the PRC has no regulatory or legal authority over the newspaper, that its lawsuit wasn’t properly authorized because commissioners didn’t vote on it, and that the documents are not trade secrets, as the companies claim.

He also said government mistakes don’t create a right to muzzle the press, and it isn’t the press’ job to fix them.

“If the news media were ever saddled with the responsibility for fixing government mistakes, the press would not have the time to do any news reporting,”  the newspaper said in its filing.

Public Regulation Commissioner Valerie Espinoza said she, Jones and Commissioner Pat Lyons spoke against the lawsuit during today’s meeting. She told the Journal the issue was wrongly handled by the PRC, pointing out that no vote was taken before the lawsuit was filed.

“Now, our reputation is going to be even more tarnished than it was,” Espinoza said.