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N.M. Supreme Court allows ban on no direct public access in Legislature

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SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico is sticking with a ban on direct public access to the Statehouse in favor of remote internet video access as legislators gather this week to rewrite the state budget.

A divided Supreme Court rejected a petition Tuesday from nearly two-dozen rank-and-file lawmakers to keep the doors of the Legislature open to the general public with a reduced limit on occupancy to guard against the coronavirus.

A bipartisan panel of leading lawmakers and their legal advisers at the Legislative Council Service insisted that public attendance would make it nearly impossible to avoid close human contact that allows COVID-19 to spread.

Thomas Hnasko, an attorney for the Legislative Council Service, defended the plan to close the Capitol to the public and provide remote access instead, arguing that interactive video feeds of committee hearings and floor sessions would ensure the Legislature doesn’t operate in secret. He warned that mass public gatherings inside the Capitol “could result in a catastrophe for our citizens from a public health standpoint.”

Attorney Blair Dunn, representing 22 dissident legislators, said that public participation in a legislative session is about more than listening to committee hearings and floor debates and involves conversations in the corridors and offices of the Statehouse.

“Simply watching a webcast from a couch, or wherever they can find one, is not meaningfully part of the process, nor is sending an email,” he said.

A written opinion from the Supreme Court was pending from the court to explain its reasoning.

Justice David Thomson expressed his reluctance to tell a separate branch of government how to conduct business amid the COVID-19 pandemic, while Justice Shannon Bacon expressed concern that people without computers or high-speed internet in New Mexico’s vast “technological desert” would be shut out.

Court deliberations were held by video conference and were interrupted for about 10 minutes by an internet connection failure — steering the discussion toward pratfalls of governance by internet.

At stake in the legislative session are efforts to fill a $2.4 billion budget gap for the current and coming fiscal years amid plunging state government income. Lawmakers are revising a $7.6 billion general fund spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1, that would have raised state and public school salaries by 4%.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has said she will also consider police-accountability reforms such as mandatory body cameras and emergency reforms to voting procedures.

Democratic state legislators are discussing a range of potential policing reforms in response to local concerns and mass demonstrations nationwide over the deaths of George Floyd and other black Americans.

A new initiative being unveiled on Tuesday would steer evaluations and investigations into the use of deadly force by police away from local prosecutors who can be reluctant to review them and toward specially appointed prosecutors with greater independence.

The governor and the state attorney general would be notified within 24 hours of all police actions resulting in significant injuries or death under the proposal.

Leading Republican legislators in New Mexico say they won’t stand in the way of initiatives to require police body cameras and prohibit chokeholds.

Republican House Minority Leader Jim Townsend and Rep. Rod Montoya said Monday that most public safety agencies in New Mexico already prohibit chokeholds and they voiced support for mandatory police body cameras.

Montoya said his only hesitation regarding mandatory body cameras might be in mandating new spending by cash-strapped state and local government. Townsend had no reservations.

“Mandatory body cams — I don’t think it’s a bad idea,” Townsend said.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order Tuesday that he said would encourage better police practices by establishing a database that tracks police officers with excessive use-of-force complaints in their records. Democrats and Republicans in Congress have been rolling out their own packages of policing changes.

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