Thursday, May 13, 2004
AG Says No to Undated Regent Resignations
By Olivier Uyttebrouck
Journal Staff Writer
Gov. Bill Richardson's practice of requiring university regents to submit undated letters of resignation is unconstitutional, a state attorney general opinion said Wednesday.
Attorney General Patricia Madrid predicted that the state Supreme Court would reject any attempt by Richardson to force a regent to resign, if the governor were challenged in court.
Madrid said the state's constitution gives the Supreme Court, not the governor, the power to remove regents.
"These offices are very specifically protected," Madrid said in an interview Wednesday. "New Mexico's constitution provides that there will be no removal (of regents) without notice and a hearing."
Richardson, shortly after taking office in January 2003, began requiring his regent appointees to submit resignation letters that he could exercise at any time.
Richardson issued a written statement Wednesday defending the practice. He said it was meant "to ensure his appointments are accountable to the public."
He also predicted that the courts would uphold the practice "and should there be a legal challenge in the future, the governor is prepared to defend this policy in court, and is confident he would prevail."
State Sen. Rod Adair, R-Roswell, who requested the attorney general's opinion, criticized Richardson's response.
The policy is not intended to make regents accountable to the public, but to Richardson, he said.
"He has decided to rule the universities directly," Adair said Wednesday. "The people of New Mexico can never be sure they're getting an independent judgment they're supposed to get from regents."
According to the opinion, the state constitution says university regents may not be removed except for incompetence, neglect of duty or malfeasance in office and then only after they have had a chance to argue their case in the state Supreme Court.
The provision "clearly is intended to maintain the independence of the boards of regents and insulate them from political interference," the opinion said.
"Particularly in light of the constitution's intent, it is doubtful that the governor's attempt to force a regent to resign by using an undated letter of resignation signed prior to the regent's appointment and confirmation by the Senate would survive a court challenge," the opinion said.
Adair said he requested the opinion in April after University of New Mexico regents approved a controversial labor union agreement for the construction of a $183 million expansion of UNM Hospital.
Adair said he believes Richardson directed the move a contention the governor has denied. Five of the seven UNM regents have been appointed by Richardson.
UNM Regent Jamie Koch, a Richardson appointee, rejected the suggestion that Richardson was involved in approval of the labor agreement.
"The unions came before us, and the university looked at the agreement," Koch said Wednesday. Richardson "didn't try to influence it in any way."