One of the most controversial bills in this year’s legislative session became law on Thursday.
And many lawyers hail it as a breakthrough in protecting residents’ civil rights.
New Mexico’s civil rights law allows New Mexicans to sue government entities in state court if they believe their civil rights have been violated, and it eliminates “qualified immunity As a defense in such complaints.
Qualified immunity protects government workers from personal liability under federal law when workers violate people’s constitutional rights.
Lawmakers supporting New Mexico’s civil rights law have said they will hold government agencies accountable in a way that was only possible through federal courts.
Several New Mexico civil rights attorneys said they expected an increase in the number of such cases filed in state courts, but not immediately.
“It may take a while,” Albuquerque civil rights lawyer Maureen Sanders said. “This will only apply to actions that take place after July 1, so if something happened to you two years ago, you cannot bring it. [to court] under this law. “
She said the new law is important because “in the past we did not have an effective way to sue for damages for a violation of our state constitutional rights because we did not have a law stating that you can sue for damages ”.
Violations of freedom of expression, religion or elections are among the civil rights violations that citizens could pursue under the new law.
Residents can also sue if they believe they have been unduly or cruelly punished or illegally detained against their will by government agencies.
Lysette Romero Córdova, who worked as an appeals lawyer before becoming an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico School of Law, said the law is important because “what is the use of a right without recourse?”
She said only one other state – Colorado – had enacted a similar law.
“What we are doing is new and historic,” she said. “It’s good that we are doing something innovative.”
She said it was too early to say what the ramifications of the law would be.
“You can have well-meaning legislation, but you just don’t know how it’s going to work in individual cases,” she said. “I know there will be problems that will crop up – things that you can’t foresee at the drafting stage and that you can’t see until a case is in court.”
But lawmakers can fix these issues with amendments in future legislative sessions, she said.
House Bill 4 did not get through the legislative session easily. Some Republican lawmakers and government officials have said city and county governments will either become uninsurable or face financial problems in arguing such cases.
Grace Philips, general counsel for the New Mexico County Association, said the law could cost local governments millions of dollars.
On Thursday, she said the association remains “very concerned that there are costs. We have a law now and we will wait and see and we will be happy if we are wrong.”
Córdova said such concerns are legitimate. In a follow-up email, she wrote: “We can either agree to leave New Mexicans without recourse when the government violates a constitutional right of the state, or give them recourse and accept the cost of that.
“It was a judgment the legislature had to make, and it did. It decided that the tax implications did not outweigh the benefits of greater government accountability and compensation for victims. government misconduct. “
The law sets a limit of $ 2 million in damages for any government entity, and it does not allow plaintiffs to sue individual employees, such as a police officer or a teacher. It also leaves it to the courts to award attorney fees in cases where the claimant wins.
Several New Mexico lawyers have said holding government entities to account can make a difference in reducing civil rights violations. Governments could initiate training programs to try to prevent individual misconduct from happening again.
Albuquerque civil rights attorney Laura Schauer Ives said government agencies – not individual employees – would be the ones who would end up footing the bill in the event of a loss.
“There really was no sense in exposing individuals to the fear of individual responsibility when it was the employer who had to pay,” she said.
Santa Fe attorney Richard Rosenstock said people tend to view such cases in terms of police misconduct and abuse, but HB 4 “is not a police bill.” , did he declare. “This is a bill to prosecute government officials for violations of the New Mexico state constitution. And there are many New Mexico government officials who are not. police officers.”
He said many civil rights cases in federal courts had nothing to do with police but dealt with First Amendment violations or job applications.
“One area where I can see complaints coming up is the CYFD [Children, Youth and Families Department]”He said.” There could be a lot, maybe … like placing a child in foster care where they are raped or taking a child out of the family inappropriately. “
Albuquerque civil rights attorney Ryan Villa said one downside of not being able to file a complaint against an individual is that you can’t easily track an employee’s repeated violations.
“Prosecuting the person helps identify repeat offenders,” he said. “If I sue Joe Smith and another lawyer sues Joe Smith and another lawyer sues Joe Smith, there’s a file, and you can say there’s a pattern here.
“The state’s civil rights law says you can’t name Joe Smith, so you’re relying on the government entity to tell you during a trial – if Joe Smith does three wrong things. know a lot of entities don’t tell us this on purpose or because their data systems aren’t configured so that they can actually verify it. “
Yet the law will hold officials accountable “in the form of money,” he said.
“It remains to be seen if you get changes on the ground or get this employer to do things differently,” he said.