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County opposes recommendations of Civil Rights Commission

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Chaves County commissioners and the county manager have all sorts of choice words for the legislative recommendations of the New Mexico Civil Rights Commission, including back-breaking and counterproductive, and they voted Thursday to pass a resolution expressing their opposition.

They also said that they intend for their vote to be one of many as they plan to work with legislators and other government entities to stop the recommendations from becoming law, at least as currently written.

County Manager Stanton Riggs, also the county’s lawyer, said that the 2021 legislative proposals adopted by the Civil Rights Commission are counterproductive in trying to reform local governments and their law enforcement and detention employees.

He said they are “back-breaking” to counties by giving people unlimited rights to sue in state district courts and to collect uncapped financial awards for violations of rights.

“We are not against anyone’s civil rights,” Riggs said. “We are just trying to figure out as a county, a local government, how we can do better, improve everything, and still meet our obligations and not be hit with these lawsuits that are back-breaking.”

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The resolution the commissioners considered to oppose the Civil Rights Commission’s recommendations had been drafted by the New Mexico Counties group, and it passed unanimously, 5-0.

The New Mexico Civil Rights Commission was created by the 2020 special session of the New Mexico Legislature, and the group is due to remain effective at least until March. It was formed to develop proposed legislative actions that would hold public officials accountable for misconduct.

The commission states in a November report that federal law for 140 years has allowed people to sue public officials for denying them their constitutional rights, but that there has never been a state law allowing that.

The commission is recommending to do away with “qualified immunity” by passing the New Mexico Civil Rights Act. If qualified immunity for public officials is waived, people could hold public officials in the state liable for violating people’s rights. It also would allow people who sue and are given a judgment to receive compensatory awards for the cost of their lawyers’ fees.

Riggs, who stressed that the county fires sheriff’s deputies and detention officers for wrong actions, said the financial awards could cause great harm to local governments and force them to raise taxes to pay for large financial judgments.

Ron Lethgo, Chaves County chief deputy assessor and chairman of the New Mexico County Insurance Authority, said the changes could make it impossible for local governments to transfer some of their risks to reinsurance companies and could threaten the financial viability of the county self-insurance pool.

“I can’t stress enough to you how devastating this would be to the pool,” he said. “We have done everything in our power to try to slow this … but the speaker (of the House) seems to be driving this full-force and full-speed toward the 60-day session.”

Commissioner T. Calder Ezzell Jr., an oil and gas lawyer, said he hopes the New Mexico Municipal League and its member organizations also will oppose the recommendations.

“It created a specific cause of action that already exists, and it is just a plaintiff’s lawyer’s relief effort,” Ezzell said. “And I agree that the association of counties, the municipal league, everybody needs to scream bloody murder because this is, this is terrible.”

Commissioner Robert Corn said he thinks that the decisions of the Civil Rights Commission were skewed by not having enough input from other perspectives, because many of the Civil Rights Commission members had represented plaintiffs in lawsuits against government agencies.

“You can’t just go down one rail of the track,” he said. “It takes both rails to get the train going. So I am a little skeptical of any decision those folks have made because they are just looking at one side of the coin.”

In its report, the Civil Rights Commission said it had heard from cities and counties about their concerns over lawsuits and insurance. But the report said it has not been proven that costs would be overly burdensome and also wrote that the current situation of requiring people harmed to “pay for the violation they suffered” is not reasonable.

“That leaves the Legislature with a choice — do nothing out of fear of an unproven financial risk, or take action realizing that you may amend any statute you adopt to address problems that actually arise,” the report stated.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.