New Mexico Civil Rights Act passes House, moves on to the Senate
SANTA FE – The New Mexico Civil Rights Act (HB 4), a bill that divided the state's Civil Rights Commission over the issue of qualified immunity, passed the state House of Representatives Tuesday afternoon and will move on to consideration in the Senate.
HB 4 would allow individuals to sue state and local government entities, including law enforcement agencies and educational institutions for deprivations of civil rights under the state Constitution in state district courts rather than federal courts.
It requires public entities to indemnify employees for monetary damages awarded in such lawsuits when brought against individuals, leaving agencies on the hook if a law enforcement officer or other government agent is found to have violated a plaintiff's civil rights.
Opponents of the bill have included several counties and government agencies concerned that the bill would increase the costs of liability insurance or make it harder to obtain.
The bill would also forbid the use of the "qualified immunity" defense allowed in federal courts, which requires plaintiffs to show both that their rights were violated and that the specific violation has been addressed in previous case law.
Critics say qualified immunity, which is not established in statute, serves as a shield for bad actors — particularly in law enforcement — from accountability for abusing citizens' rights.
The bill was recently modified to cap damage claims at $2 million, including attorney's fees, and prevent public employees from using the law to bring claims against the agency which employs them.
Several Republican members questioned how the law would hold individuals accountable for violations when they are indemnified from lawsuits. State Rep. Deborah Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, said the issue went beyond bad apples to the institutions themselves.
"If one of those suits happens early, before it permeates the culture, I think you put a stop to it," she said.
"This bill, to me, goes to the heart of restoring trust at a time when trust is very hard to find," state Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, said on the floor in support of the bill. "This is about ensuring that that trust between our citizens, between the people who live in this country and those government agents they interact with ... is restored."
Yet over three hours of debate, Republicans focused largely on potential consequences for municipalities, particularly those with small operating budgets.
State Rep. Gail Armstrong, R-Magdalena, said county commissioners from all three counties in her district — Socorro, Valencia and Catron — sent her formal resolutions opposing the bill.
The Doña Ana County Board of Commissioners also opposed the bill, along with County Sheriff Kim Stewart, Third Judicial District Attorney Gerald Byers and County Treasurer Eric Rodriguez.
Stewart and Byers are both members of the Civil Rights Commission, and were among the body's dissenters on the issue of qualified immunity. Both argued that police reform should be pursued through the state Law Enforcement Academy rather than via litigation.
Freshman Rep. Ryan Lane, R-Aztec, argued that House members who practice law could be accused of a conflict of interest if they voted in support of the bill, and introduced an amendment from the floor that would bar those legislators from participating in litigation and benefitting financially thanks to the bill.
"There is no shortage of trial lawyers in our state," Lane remarked from the floor.
The suggestion was rebuffed by state Rep. Georgene Louis, D-Albuquerque, an Acoma Pueblo member and attorney who cited tribal law as her main passion. Louis held the floor and fielded questions as a co-sponsor of the bill.
Lane's amendment was quickly tabled by the House on a 44-24 vote, after which debate was ended and lawmakers approved the bill by 39 to 29 opposed, with several Democrats and one independent joining Republicans in opposition.
Others are reading:
- New Mexico legalization bill for recreational use cannabis clears House committee
- New Mexico State Police: Deadly rollover on I-10 weather related
- Las Cruces Public Schools grieves loss of middle school media teacher due to COVID-19
- New Mexico Supreme Court backs Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's COVID-19 pandemic authority