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Judicial immunity is challenged in high court

SANTA FE – The Supreme Court is being asked to determine whether judges can be sued under the state’s public records law to force them to provide their emails or other communications related to the cases they’re deciding.

The high court heard arguments Wednesday in a dispute that lawyers said could establish the first ground rules for how the state Inspection of Public Records Act applies to the judiciary.

The case is an offshoot of a pending lawsuit in which the attorney general is trying to block a proposed horse slaughter operation near Roswell.

State District Judge Matthew Wilson of Santa Fe, who is presiding over the Valley Meat Co. case, was sued by the company after a public records request. He asked the Supreme Court to halt the litigation, citing judicial immunity.

The court ruled after hearing arguments that Wilson should be dismissed as a defendant and replaced by the court’s records custodian.

The justices also said they were retaining jurisdiction and would consider the case – as an appeal, effectively – after the judge who is handling it completes his order.

After Wilson issued a preliminary injunction in January 2014 blocking the horse slaughter plant, Valley Meat filed a request under IPRA seeking Wilson’s communications with judges, court staff and outsiders, as well as messages from his election campaign Facebook page.

Dissatisfied with the response from Wilson and the 1st Judicial District Court, the company then filed an IPRA lawsuit in state District Court in Roswell.

Judge James Hudson recently rejected some of the company’s claims – he ruled, for example, that the Facebook page was not a public record subject to IPRA – but he said Wilson had wrongly withheld an email chain, claiming it was privileged. And he said Wilson initially failed to produce another 13 pages of emails that should have been provided.

Scott Fuqua, the lawyer representing Wilson, told the justices that allowing parties in lawsuits to sue presiding judges to obtain records could amount to “intimidating and harassing the judiciary.”

Valley Meat, which wanted Wilson off the case, was hoping to find information that would bolster its attempt to remove him, Fuqua said.

And while the judiciary is subject to IPRA requests about administrative matters – such as court personnel and salaries – the judicial decision-making process is immune from such requests, Fuqua argued.

He contended that immunity extends to the withheld chain of emails, which was between Wilson and his wife, Stephanie Wilson, who works for the Supreme Court Law Library. He had asked her to proofread a draft of the injunction he was going to issue, Fuqua said.

Valley Meat’s lawyer, Blair Dunn, told the court that emails between the judge and someone not on the District Court staff “causes some concern.”

“Once it goes outside of that sphere of the court, that’s where immunity should end,” Dunn said.

And judges should have nothing to worry about with IPRA requests if their communications about a case are “totally innocent,” he told the court.