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Stories about New Mexico

Supreme Court releases opinion on water dispute between Texas and New Mexico

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The Supreme Court of the United States issued an opinion in Texas v. New Mexico, which was argued on October 5, 2020. The case is part of the court’s original jurisdiction, meaning it was the first and only court to hear the case. Original jurisdiction cases are rare. According to the Federal Judicial Center, since 1960, the court “received fewer than 140 motions for leave to file original cases, nearly half of which were denied a hearing.”

Texas v. New Mexico concerned an interstate water dispute. In 1949, the two states entered a compact about use of the Pecos River, which flows south from New Mexico to Texas, where it joins the Rio Grande. In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court appointed a river master to issue an annual report summarizing New Mexico’s compliance with its compact obligations. In this case, Texas challenged retroactive changes the river master made to his 2014-2015 annual report.

In a 7-1 opinion written by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the court denied Texas’ motion to review the river master’s annual report, holding the river master correctly determined New Mexico’s water delivery credit. Kavanaugh wrote, “As the River Master correctly concluded, New Mexico is entitled to delivery credit for the evaporated water. That result is both legally accurate and entirely fair.”

Justice Samuel Alito concurred in part and dissented in part. In his opinion, Alito wrote that he would have vacated the case and remanded it to the river master with instructions to redo his analysis.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not take part in the case. She was not a member of the court when arguments were held.

As of December 14, 2020, the court had issued opinions in nine cases this term. Four cases were decided without argument.

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Supreme Court releases opinion on water dispute between Texas and New Mexico

Image of the front of the United States Supreme Court building.

The Supreme Court of the United States issued an opinion in Texas v. New Mexico, which was argued on October 5, 2020. The case is part of the court’s original jurisdiction, meaning it was the first and only court to hear the case.

Texas v. New Mexico concerned an interstate water dispute. In 1949, the two states entered a compact about use of the Pecos River, which flows south from New Mexico to Texas, where it joins the Rio Grande. In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court appointed a river master to issue an annual report summarizing New Mexico’s compliance with its compact obligations. In this case, Texas challenged retroactive changes the river master made to his 2014-2015 annual report.

In a 7-1 opinion written by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the court denied Texas’ motion to review the river master’s annual report, holding the river master correctly determined New Mexico’s water delivery credit. Kavanaugh wrote, “As the River Master correctly concluded, New Mexico is entitled to delivery credit for the evaporated water. That result is both legally accurate and entirely fair.”

Justice Samuel Alito concurred in part and dissented in part. In his opinion, Alito wrote that he would have vacated the case and remanded it to the river master with instructions to redo his analysis.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not take part in the case. She was not a member of the court when arguments were held.

As of December 14, 2020, the court had issued opinions in nine cases this term. Four cases were decided without argument.

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New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Nakamura retires

New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Judith Nakamura retired on Dec. 1, 2020. She originally planned to retire on Aug. 1 but postponed her retirement date in June. 

Governor Susana Martinez (R) appointed Nakamura to the court in November 2015. Prior to her appointment, Nakamura was a judge on the New Mexico Second Judicial District Court and the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court. She received an undergraduate degree from the University of New Mexico and a J.D. from the University of New Mexico School of Law.

Under New Mexico law, state supreme court vacancies are filled through assisted gubernatorial appointment, where the governor selects a nominee based on recommendations from a judicial nominating commission. On Nov. 19, the judicial nominating commission recommended four candidates to the governor, two of which have served as District Court judges and two as Court of Appeals judges. Nakamura’s replacement will be Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s (D) third nominee to the five-member supreme court. The new appointee will stand for partisan election in November 2022.

As of Dec. 2, two justices of the New Mexico Supreme Court were elected in partisan elections as Democrats, two were appointed by Lujan Grisham, and one seat was vacant.

In 2020, there have been 22 supreme court vacancies in 16 of the 29 states where replacement justices are appointed instead of elected. One vacancy occurred when a chief justice died, while 21 were caused by retirements.

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Yvette Herrell defeats incumbent Xochitl Torres Small in New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District

Yvette Herrell (R) defeated incumbent Xochitl Torres Small (D) and Steve Jones (I) in New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District.

The race was one of 56 U.S. House rematches ongoing this year; Herrell and Small ran for the then-open seat in 2018, as incumbent Steve Pearce (R) sought the governorship. That year, Torres Small defeated Herrell 51% to 49% to flip the seat.

This was also one of 30 U.S. House seats Democrats were defending this year that President Trump (R) carried in 2016. That year, he defeated Hillary Clinton (D) 50% to 40% in the 2nd District.

This is one of three districts so far where the New York Times, CNN, ABC, NBC, and FOX News have each called as a Democratic to Republican flip. The other two districts (Minnesota’s 7th and Oklahoma’s 5th) also went to President Trump by margins of 10 percentage points or greater in 2016. The five outlets have called two districts as Republican to Democratic flips, both North Carolina districts that were redrawn last year.



Trujillo resigns from New Mexico House of Representatives

On Sept. 28, Rep. Jim Trujillo (D) resigned from the District 45 seat in the New Mexico House of Representatives, citing health and family reasons. Trujillo was first appointed to the seat in 2003 to fill a vacancy created by the resignation of Patsy Trujillo, to whom he is not related.

Trujillo’s successor will be appointed by the Santa Fe County Commission and will serve until his term ends in January. Linda Serrato (D) and Helen Milenski (L) are running for the District 45 seat in the Nov. 3 general election. In 2018, Trujillo was unopposed for reelection to the seat.

All 70 seats in the New Mexico House of Representatives are up for election this year. Ballotpedia has identified the New Mexico House of Representatives as one of 22 state legislative battleground chambers for the 2020 cycle. With Trujillo’s resignation, the current partisan breakdown of the chamber is 45 Democrats, 24 Republicans, and one vacancy. Republicans need to win 12 more seats, or 17% of the total seats, to gain a majority in the House. Democrats will retain control of the New Mexico State House if they lose fewer than 12 net seats. New Mexico is currently one of 15 states with a Democratic trifecta.

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New Mexico House of Representatives elections, 2020
State legislative battleground chambers, 2020
State legislative vacancies, 2020
State government trifectas



New Mexico Supreme Court rules Governor Lujan Grisham may fine businesses for violating public health orders

On August 4, 2020, the New Mexico Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the governor may legally fine businesses that violate the New Mexico Public Health Emergency Response Act.

The case came to the supreme court after several businesses filed suit in the 9th Judicial District in Curry County. The state Republican Party helped organize the complaint against the governor. The plaintiffs claimed that the power of the governor to fine businesses that violated the Emergency Response Act was not inherent to the act itself. Chief Justice Michael Vigil, writing the court’s opinion, said, “The Legislature has clearly given the governor that authority.”

In response to the supreme court’s decision, Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce said, “We are deeply disappointed in today’s Supreme Court decision… This ruling demonstrates the need to seek change at the polls this November by electing conservative judicial candidates who will help protect our freedoms and basic rights. What happens at the polls impacts what happens in our lives in New Mexico, and we must make a stand this fall on Election Day.”

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) tweeted in response to the court’s decision: “The state shouldn’t have to fine anybody…Doing the right thing in a crisis shouldn’t be something we have to argue about. But anyone endangering the lives of New Mexicans will face the consequences.”

The state supreme court may hear a similar case in the future. In July, the New Mexico Restaurant Association filed a lawsuit in a state District Court challenging the state’s authority to order establishments to close indoor dining again after briefly allowing the businesses to reopen at 50% capacity.

As of August 11, Ballotpedia has tracked 681 lawsuits filed in response to policies implemented to address the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. Of these 681 suits, 189 have been filed in state-level courts (and 34 of those have been taken up by state supreme courts). The remaining lawsuits have been filed in the federal judiciary.

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Lujan appointed to New Mexico House of Representatives

The Santa Fe County Commission appointed Tara Lujan (D) to the New Mexico House of Representatives on July 23. Lujan fills the District 48 seat vacated by Linda Trujillo (D) on July 9, when Trujillo resigned in order to focus on full-time work due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Lujan will serve in the New Mexico legislature until the end of the year. Since Trujillo was running for re-election when she resigned, the Democratic Central Committee in Santa Fe County will also select a replacement candidate for the November 3 ballot. Before she resigned, Trujillo advanced unopposed from the June 2 primary election. No candidates from other parties may be nominated to the November ballot, as no candidates from other parties filed to run in the district before the filing deadline passed.

New Mexico has a Democratic state government trifecta. In the November 2018 elections, the New Mexico House of Representatives’ Democratic majority increased from 38-31 (with one vacancy) to 46-24. All 70 seats in the chamber are up for election this year.

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Trujillo resigns from New Mexico legislature, cites need to focus on full-time work

Linda Trujillo (D) resigned from the New Mexico House of Representatives, a little more than one month after winning the Democratic primary for the seat. Trujillo is an attorney by trade and said she needed to work full-time due to economic concerns resulting from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. She announced her resignation from office effective immediately on July 9.
Trujillo had represented District 48 since first winning election to the seat in 2016. She ran unopposed in the Democratic primary on June 2 and advanced to the general election with 100% of the vote before withdrawing. Democratic committee members from her district will appoint a replacement to serve the remainder of her unexpired term, which ends on December 31, 2020.
Lawmakers in New Mexico’s state legislature are part-time, meaning legislators devote an average of 57% of their total working hours during the week to their legislative duties. Many legislators must reduce their working hours outside the legislature as a result. New Mexico is the only state that does not pay an annual base salary to state legislators, with the average salary for part-time legislators being $18,449 per year.


New Mexico Supreme Court rules in cases involving police uniforms and vehicle markings

On June 11, 2020, the New Mexico Supreme Court consolidated two cases and clarified requirements for marks of identification for police officers in aggravated fleeing cases.

New Mexico law considers aggravated fleeing a fourth-degree felony. The law describes aggravated fleeing as “a person willfully and carelessly driving his vehicle in a manner that endangers the life of another person after being given a visual or audible signal to stop, whether by hand, voice, emergency light, flashing light, siren or other signal, by a uniformed law enforcement officer in an appropriately marked law enforcement vehicle.”

The court ruled that a district court properly dismissed a charge against a man in San Juan County because the pursuing sheriff’s deputy was driving an SUV with lights behind the grille of the vehicle, but no decals, insignias, or lettering to indicate it was a law enforcement vehicle.

Justice Michael Vigil, who wrote the majority opinion, ruled that a police vehicle must be marked by “decals or other prominent and visible insignia identifying it as such.” Vigil also wrote, “Reiterating the definition of ‘mark’ as that which provides identification, we cannot conclude that lights or a siren are unique in identifying a police officer’s vehicle where emergency vehicles, tow trucks, and even civilian vehicles may be equipped with these same signaling devices.”

In a second case, the court agreed with the Court of Appeals that a man’s conviction should be reversed because the pursuing sheriff’s deputy was wearing civilian clothing rather than a uniform. The sheriff’s deputy was wearing a badge displayed on his shirt pocket and driving an unmarked SUV because he was working as an investigator for the sheriff’s office. Justice Vigil wrote that he must look at the “plain meaning” of the word uniform to rule in the case. He wrote, “while a police officer’s badge is a distinctive accessory that identifies a police officer, it is not, standing alone, a uniform.”

In a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Judith K. Nakamura wrote that the ruling “has the pernicious effect of permitting some offenders who knowingly disobey officer commands and then flee in a manner that endangers the public to avoid criminal punishment simply because an officer’s uniform and/or vehicle were not sufficiently distinctive.”

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New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice Nakamura to retire in August

New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice Judith Nakamura is retiring on August 1, 2020. Nakamura joined the court in 2015 after being nominated by Gov. Susana Martinez (R). Before that, Nakamura was a judge on the New Mexico Second Judicial District Court and the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court. She also worked in private practice and for the State Land Office. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of New Mexico and her J.D. from the University of New Mexico School of Law.

In the event of a midterm vacancy, New Mexico Supreme Court justices are chosen by assisted gubernatorial appointment. The governor selects a nominee based on recommendations from the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission. Nakamura’s replacement will be Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s (D) third nominee to the five-member supreme court. The new appointee must stand for partisan election in November 2020. Justices wishing to serve additional terms must participate in uncontested retention elections; the justice must receive 57% of the vote to retain his or her seat.

The New Mexico Supreme Court is the state’s court of last resort. It currently includes the following justices:

  • Barbara Vigil – Elected in 2012
  • Michael Vigil – Elected in 2018
  • Judith Nakamura – Appointed by Gov. Martinez (R) in 2015
  • Shannon Bacon – Appointed by Gov. Lujan Grisham (D) in 2019
  • David Thomson – Appointed by Gov. Lujan Grisham in 2019

In 2020, there have been 15 supreme court vacancies in 12 of the 29 states where replacement justices are appointed instead of elected. The vacancies were caused by retirements. Ten vacancies are in states where a Democratic governor appoints the replacement. Four are in states where a Republican governor appoints the replacement. One vacancy is in a state where the state supreme court votes to appoint the replacement.

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