Rio Arriba County has joined other New Mexico municipalities in rebuking the New Mexico Civil Rights Commission for its recommendations for a proposed state Civil Rights Act.

    County commissioners approved the resolution at the Nov. 10 County Commission meeting opposing the recommendations of the Civil Rights Commission. The resolution was approved by commissioners Leo Jaramillo and James  Martinez. Commissioner Danny Garcia was having technical difficulties was unable to vote on the resolution at that moment.

    The Civil Rights Commission is recommending the creation of a state level Civil Rights Act, which would end qualified immunity as a defense and provide guidelines for determining compensation for when a person’s rights are violated by state and local governments.  

    Qualified immunity is the legal defense used when an employee acting on behalf of the state makes an error and does something that violates someone’s civil rights, protects that employee from civil lawsuits.

County’s argument

    The recommendations from the Civil Rights Commission that the counties were opposed to, were adding attorney fees to civil rights cases, requiring public employers to indemnify public employees (meaning the counties and other public organizations would be financially liable when their employees do something that could cause a suit) and the removal of qualified immunity as a defense.

    The County and other municipalities are arguing that because of the bias toward lawsuits that it overlooked investigating systemic issues that create civil rights issues, and that New Mexico already has some of the highest payout rates for civil rights cases in the country.

    In the complaint the County recommended for example more ability to investigate and discipline problem officers and substance abuse and mental health disorders. In the county’s these eyes were the largest driver of interactions that resulted in a civil rights violations so help managing those problems would alleviate more problems than increased lawsuits.

    Former New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Richard Bosson was the head of the Commission and said creating a state Civil Rights Act was only one part of protecting the civil rights of citizens in New Mexico.

    “I think the Commission felt that, or at least the majority of the Commission felt that and hoped that it would have a kind of ameliorative effect and improve the work and conduct by all the public employees providing accountability to the public,” Bosson said.

    County attorney Adan Trujillo said during the board meeting that the Civil Rights Commission’s recommendations didn’t do enough to help with the underlying civil rights issues in New Mexico while providing extra money to lawyers.

Narrow scope

    Bosson said he agreed there were many solutions for strengthening civil rights in New Mexico that the Commission endorsed, from increased funding to mental health to aid with substance abuse issues but went beyond the scope of the commission.

    “Our mission was very specific,” Bosson said. “The legislature wrote a bill that created this Commission and told us to do certain things, specifically, not go on a big search.”

    The County, however, alleges that the structure of the Commission limited the scope of their investigation, pointing out that the Commission’s lead researcher is a lawyer that specializes in plaintiffs’ rights and civil rights cases and this skewed the results. The Commission also included several sheriffs, one district attorney and multiple judges. The Commission members were selected three each by the governor, the senate president pro tem and the speaker of the house.

    Statutes requiring legal fees be paid are a common thing throughout the law Bosson said. The federal civil rights act requires it, and the Inspection of Public Records Act on the state level is another example that Bosson used.

    “It’s a little naive to expect these issues to be pursued in court without compensation to the successful party, that’s just not likely to happen without compensation,” Bosson said. “The second reason is many of these lawsuits may not involve a great deal of money. These cases need to be pursued on the principle of the matter the best way of that is if they’re successful for the act to provide compensation just like the federal civil rights act does.”

Early stages

    Bosson said however that creating a state civil rights act was only one part of protecting the civil rights of citizens in New Mexico.

    “I think the Commission felt that, or at least the majority of the commission felt that and hoped that it would have a kind of ameliorative effect and improve the work and conduct by all the public employees providing accountability to the public,” Bosson said.

    The County also argues that the Commission voted on its recommendations before the public comment session had ended. This is something Bosson denies.

    The argument from the County centers around there being a vote on Oct. 23 while public comment continued until Oct. 31. Bosson said the vote was a preliminary vote on their rough draft and the commission’s final vote wasn’t until Nov. 13 and that the commission was still taking comment up to that time.

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