The top Republican in the New Mexico House of Representatives has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate whether public health orders issued by the governor in response to the COVID-19 pandemic violate the constitutional rights of New Mexicans.
House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, sent a letter dated April 29 and addressed to U.S. Attorney General William Barr, requesting the Justice Department include the state of New Mexico in any inquiries it may conduct about possible civil rights violations related to the pandemic.
In the letter, Townsend, whose House District includes Otero, Eddy and part of southern Chaves County, writes that governors across the country have been operating “with almost dictatorial powers.”
He referenced public health orders issued by New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, in the letter, including orders requiring businesses not deemed essential to suspend operations, a ban on hospitals performing elective or “non-essential” medical procedures and restrictions on access to houses of worship.
The letter was written two days after Barr wrote a memorandum to the assistant attorney general for civil rights and all U.S. attorneys instructing them to be on the lookout for state and local directives that potentially violate the constitutional rights and civil liberties of individual citizens.
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Towsend’s letter was written the day before Lujan Grisham announced a new public health order relaxing several restrictions that were in earlier health orders. The new order, which remains in place up through May 15, permits any business to operate in a limited capacity by offering only curbside or delivery service, as permitted by their business license.
In an interview Friday, Townsend said allowing curbside or delivery is a good start, but Lujan Grisham should have allowed all businesses to reopen under the same rules as essential businesses, such as operating at 20% occupancy rate, where the fire code of a building determines how many people can be in it at one time.
Another public health order by Lujan Grisham last week allows medical facilities to gradually start providing medically necessary procedures again, such as inpatient surgeries and ambulatory services, as determined by Department of Health guidelines.
The guidelines are meant to prevent a shortage of personal protective equipment, according to a press release issued by the governor’s office last week.
Townsend said Monday he had not yet received a response to his letter, but expects one sometime this week at the earliest.
The Justice Department did not respond to request for comment before press time Monday.
Nora Sackett, press secretary for Lujan Grisham, said Monday the orders are supported by state law, and state statutes are cited within the orders and are standing law.
Businesses currently allowed to operate under the order in a limited capacity are those essential to people such as ones that provide food and medicine, she said.
Public health orders, Sackett said, are intended to minimize person to person contact and prevent large gatherings where the virus can easily be transmitted.
“The short of the matter is that people need to stay home or they will get sick and New Mexico will see more COVID-19 deaths,” Sackett said.
Matt Baca, a spokesperson for the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office, said a federal court in New Mexico found the governor’s public health orders properly balance the safety of New Mexicans and protect constitutional rights.
Baca added the attorney general’s office will work with Townsend and the Economic Recovery Council to safely reopen the state’s economy in a way that protects the health and safety of New Mexicans.
Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext, 301, or firstname.lastname@example.org