Civil rights invoice advances to Senate flooring after slender committee vote | Legislature | New Mexico Legislative Session

A civil rights bill that sparked fears of financial disaster among local governments across New Mexico and ensnared senior House Democrats in an ethics complaint narrowly cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee in a 5-4 vote late Wednesday.

House Bill 4 Committee Chairman and Senate Sponsor Senator Joe Cervantes broke a tie after nearly 21/2 hours of discussion and debate over the controversial measure.

“Do I see a 4-4 vote?” The Democrat of Las Cruces asked the committee secretary shortly before 9 pm: “I will vote yes.”

Senator Daniel Ivey-Soto, a Democrat from Albuquerque, voted with three Republicans on committee against the move that emerged from the House nearly a month ago and is now being passed into the Senate to achieve what is promised lively reflection. However, since the measure was changed, it would still have to return to the House for a vote.

“I think we need to listen to some of the concerns of people who have tried to make constructive comments on the bill,” said Ivey-Soto, who tabled a number of amendments on Wednesday, some of which were approved by the committee.

The bill, known as the New Mexico Civil Rights Act, would remove “qualified immunity” as a legal defense against civil rights complaints against government agencies in state courts. Currently, such claims must be submitted to the federal court.

The proposal to ban the use of qualified immunity in civil rights cases has raised some of the biggest concerns.

Qualified immunity, a legal doctrine created by the US Supreme Court in 1982, protects government employees from personal liability under federal law when workers violate people’s constitutional rights. To overcome this, an injured person must demonstrate that the government employee’s conduct violated “clearly defined” federal or constitutional rights.

The bill sparked an ethics complaint against House Speaker Brian Egolf. The Santa Fe Democrat, a major sponsor of the bill, is a private practice attorney. The complaint alleges that Egolf could benefit financially from the measure if it becomes law. Egolf described the complaint as unfounded and filed a motion to dismiss the complaint last month.

During the committee’s hearing on Wednesday, Egolf said he had “closed one civil rights case” since receiving his legal license.

“Some of my legal partners did some, but I did one myself,” he said.

In a post-vote statement, Egolf said: “We are one step closer to giving the people of New Mexico a meaningful opportunity to defend their rights under the New Mexico Bill of Rights.”

Egolf and co-sponsors of the law have stated that it is designed to protect the constitutional rights of New Mexicans.

“The arc of this bill has been since the first hearing to narrow the focus so that hopefully only meritorious, genuine civil rights violations are asserted,” said Egolf to the committee members. “The reason that matters to me is that when you make a civil rights claim, you have raised the standards of evidence, raised the standards of evidence, and raised the standards beyond what would be a simple negligence in a crime claim. In a civil rights claim, you must demonstrate higher standards of misconduct. “

Rep. Georgene Louis, D-Albuquerque, said the bill aims to ensure “fair, equitable and equitable treatment under the law” regardless of class or background.

“The introduction shows that we are listening to our communities calling for accountability for bad actors,” she said.

Louis said the proposed civil rights law was a product of the New Mexico Civil Rights Commission, which was drawn up by lawmakers during the 2020 special session.

“With a New Mexico Civil Rights Act, we can hold officials accountable when wrongdoing is committed and ensure that every community is treated under the New Mexico Fair and Equal Treatment [New Mexico] Bill of Rights by our constitution, ”she said.

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee considered various changes, including removing compulsory attorney fees when monetary damages are granted in a case and changing the statute of limitations from three to two years – none of which were passed. However, the committee adopted a new section to clarify that the provisions of the draft law on behavioral claims would apply from July 2021.

The Senators also briefly entertained an amendment that would allow local governments to be insured through the state risk management department if the bill resulted in their inability to obtain reinsurance. However, the proposed amendment was eventually withdrawn.

The bill was supported by unlikely allies such as the New Mexico Chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative organization, and the New Mexico ACLU.

Brenda Boatman, Community Engagement Director for Americans for Prosperity, said the bill would allow New Mexicans whose rights have been violated to have their day in court.

“When someone acting in an official government role violates the constitutional rights of citizens, certain laws and immunities protect them from liability, regardless of the harm they have done to regular New Mexicans,” she said. “This undermines the rights of individuals, enables evildoers to evade accountability, and leaves victims unable to address the injustice in court. In addition, it tarnishes the reputation of the many upright [police] Officers who dutifully serve and protect and undermine the trust between good officers and the communities they serve. “

However, government officials say the bill could lead to increased costs that would ultimately be passed on to taxpayers.

The bill limits the damage to $ 2 million, but liability applies to each claim, although the committee approved an amendment to ensure the cap applies to each “event”.

Santa Fe County attorney Greg Shaffer raised concerns about higher insurance rates. He said the district commissioners passed a resolution calling on lawmakers to amend the bill to strike the balance set in the tort law between compensating victims and making sure the government has the resources to make essentials To provide services to repeat. He said the resolution reflected their belief that the “main goals” of the bill can be achieved without exposing local governments to “potentially crippling risk”.

“In the simplest sense, more money on insurance and claims means less money on essential services and / or higher taxes,” he said.

Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe, who previously testified against the bill, said the bill would not improve policing. He called on lawmakers to support Senate Draft 375 instead, which would, among other things, introduce new training requirements for law enforcement officers.

“This bill is going to harm small communities across New Mexico and not achieve the basic goal we began with when George Floyd was killed, which is to hold bad actors accountable,” he said. “Instead, we have to invest in our good officers. We have to make the police what they should be: a service, a respect, a loyalty, a help to our communities. “

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