By BILLY HUNTSMAN
Las Cruces Bulletin
Lt. Gov. John Sanchez, acting in place of Gov. Susana Martinez, who is traveling to Washington, D.C. for a national governors meeting, on the night of Feb. 23 signed House Bill 261 into law on request by the governor, giving New Mexico courts $1.6 million in emergency funding and averting the crisis some involved in the judiciary branch had predicted.
Martinez had previously vetoed two other funding proposals sent to her by the legislature and left lawmakers and the state concerned about the fate of the court system, which predicted it would run out of funding for jury trials one month from the beginning of February.
HB261 provides $80,000 from the state general fund to the New Mexico Supreme Court, with the condition that any remainder shall be given back to the general fund at the end of FY2017.
Another $800,000 will be appropriated from the fund to be given to the administrative office of the courts, alleviating previous fears of employee furloughs, under the same conditions. Another $37,100 will be given to the 12th Judicial Court.
The bill’s sponsors, Rep. Nate Gentry (R-Bernalillo), Rep. Zachary J. Cook (R-Ruidoso), Speaker of the House Sen. Brian Egolf (D-Santa Fe), and Rep. Daniel A. Ivey-Soto (D-Bernalillo), wrote into the legislation that “It is necessary for the public, peace, health and safety that this act take effect immediately.”
This echoes the beliefs of critics of Martinez’s previous vetoes.
Marci Beyer, Third Judicial District judge in Las Cruces, and Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth (D-Santa Fe) predicted New Mexico falling into crises if the courts were to lose funding.
“For the third time, Gov. Martinez now has rejected the Administrative Office of the Court’s urgent warnings that it will run out of money to pay jurors in one month’s time,” Wirth said in a statement after Martinez’s second veto. “Make no mistake, there will be severe consequences resulting from the governor’s irresponsible veto of more than $800,000 that the legislature passed in House Bill 1 (HB 1) to fund juries across our state. As a former prosecutor, Gov. Martinez knows better.”
Beyer elaborated on the nature of the current crises in the courts. Because of budget constraints, Beyer said too few judges handling too many cases, public defenders are underpaid and overburdened, and loss of funding would mean the closing of drug courts, which act as “diversion programs” to keep people from incarceration, overpopulated prisons and the potential release of dangerous individuals.
Serious cases are often reduced to less serious, even minor transgressions, to keep the whole system moving, Beyer said, adding that, “Prosecutors don’t have time to prepare good cases for prosecution.”
Judges in New Mexico’s two criminal courts (the Metropolitan and the U.S. District) typically hear 25 cases a day each, with six district attorneys to prosecute the plaintiffs.
Releasing people guilty of serious crimes but who have pled to a lesser offense “is not a good protection of society,” Beyer said.
“I’ve had public defenders who have come in the first day of a trial and met their client for the very first time,” she said. “Who suffers? The people who are arrested, put in detention centers, and then a year later the DA gets around to looking at their case and decides it’s not a good case (to prosecute).”
Despite bickering between members of the legislature, who accused Martinez of not acting in a timely manner to the situation of the court’s budget constraints, and Martinez accusing the legislators working on the funding proposal of not being austere enough in their budgeting, Gentry issued a statement after the passage of HB261 congratulating the legislators and Sanchez for finding a solution in “a collegial manner.”
Billy Huntsman can be reached at email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, 575-680-1958, and on Twitter at @billy_huntsman.