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Pirtle decries NM Supreme Court decision

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A local lawmaker expressed disappointment Tuesday after the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled against his petition to prevent the State Capitol from being closed during the special legislative session.

State Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, who filed the petition, called Tuesday’s 3 to 2 decision “another blow to open government.”

He added that he was surprised by the outcome of the decision, which came following oral arguments before the court by Blair Dunn, attorney for Pirtle and the other petitioners, and an attorney representing the Legislative Council Committee.

“I thought open government would prevail,” Pirtle said.

Chief Justices Judith Nakamura and justices Michael and Barbara Vigil concurred with the order to deny the petition for a writ of mandamus, while justices C. Shannon Bacon and David K. Thomson dissented.

As a result of the decision, a June 9 vote by the 16-member Interim Legislative Council Committee to only allow legislators and their staffs to enter the Roundhouse during the special session can go into effect. The committee also had voted that same day to allow media to access the State Capitol.

Restrictions on access to the Capitol were put in place to limit the spread of COVID-19 and to comply with emergency public health orders on public gatherings.

Pirtle on Tuesday assailed Democrats, who control both legislative houses.

“The Democrat majority does not respect the people of this state nor care what their opinion will be on pending legislation,” Pirtle said Tuesday.

Chris Norstrum, a spokesperson for the New Mexico Senate Democrats, disputed the characterization of the vote by the Legislative Council Committee as partisan.

“This was not a partisan decision. And while the building will be closed to the general public for reasons of health and safety, the session itself will be open,” he said.

Pirtle has said while the committee’s motion was adopted without objection or discussion at the meeting, many members did not have their microphones on when the vote was taken.

In their petition for a writ of mandamus to the court, Pirtle and the other petitioners argued restricting access during the special session, which gets underway today, is a violation of the New Mexico State Constitution, which stipulates “all sessions of each house shall be made public.”

They also argued the restrictions could violate the due process right of New Mexicans by preventing them from taking part in the session by interacting with lawmakers during the session and in person.

The special session is being held mainly to fill a roughly $2.4 billion hole in the budget for the current and upcoming fiscal years.

However, in his arguments Tuesday, Dunn noted that other issues including police and election reforms could also be discussed.

Though committee meetings and debates will be streamed on the Legislature’s website during the meeting, petitioners argued that people in many parts of New Mexico lack access to dependable internet service, especially in rural areas.

Attorneys for the Legislative Committee Council argued the session’s floor debates and committee meetings will be streamed online, and lawmakers can still be reached by phone or email. The rule adopted by the committee, they said, strikes the proper balance between protecting the public and conducting and allowing people to participate in the legislative process.

They added other state capitols have enacted similar restrictions.

Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext, 301, or breakingnews@rdrnews.com.