Attorneys representing the Lea County Sheriff’s Office and Lea County Sheriff Corey Helton fired back at the writ of mandamus petition filed by New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas at the end of July.
The AG filed the court action hoping to compel the sheriff and deputies to enforce the “Public Health Emergency Orders” created by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
On Aug 10, the New Mexico Supreme Court ordered a response be filed by close of business Monday. Attorneys Jeffrey Baker and Renni Zifferblatt of the Baker Law Group filed the response on behalf of the sheriff Monday morning.
The response to the “emergency petition” offered multiple rebuttals to the allegations put forth by the AG, including about seven alledged factual errors — which form the basis of the AG’s argument — included in the filing. The response also included an affidavit from Helton dated Aug. 3.
“We responded vigorously to the attorney general’s allegations. We’ll see what happens since the state now has three days to respond. I guess the Supreme Court rules then,” Helton said.
Helton also pointed out the many factual errors in the AG’s filing.
“Some of the allegations weren’t factual,” Helton said. “Hopefully the Supreme Court will see that.”
In part, the response to factual allegations includes:
• “Sheriff Helton has not ‘requested that restaurants open their facilities in violation of the state’s piblic health emergency orders.’”
• “Sheriff Helton has not issued any ‘orders to city businesses which countermand state law.’”
• “Sheriff Helton has not ‘encouraged’ his deputies to violate public health orders.’”
The response filed Monday also points out the governor is constrained by state law, and does not have the power to operate outside of it, in particular to the PHEOs in this case.
“While the governor has broad authority over the executive power over the state, the governor’s actions will be invalid if they are outside her constitutional statutory authority,” the response quotes.
“The plain language of the PHEOs demonstrates that the governor does not have the authority to order the Sheriff of Lea County to do or refrain from doing anything,” the response continues. “It is instructive to note that the question raised by the petition is not whether the governor and her secretary of health are correct with respect to the science involving the pandemic, or correct with respect to the best measure to combat the pandemic. The question is whether the governor has the authority to tell the Sheriff of Lea County how to perform his statutory duties. Unless such authority can be found in the state constitution or in statute, the answer is the governor does not have this authority.”
The response also states the same orders would not be legal if given to a municipal police agency, so therefore are not legal in respect to the sheriff’s office.
“If the governor ordered these municipal police agencies (incorporated within Lea County) to enforce the PHEOs, such orders would not be enforceable under the PHEOs. If the orders would not be lawful as to the municipal agencies, they are not lawful with respect to the Sheriff,” the response points out. “Absent constitutional or statutory language providing such authority, the petition necessarily fails.”
While also talking about the duties of the sheriff in regards to performing tasks the residents of the county who elected him into office, it clearly points out one elected official, namely the governor, cannot tell another elected official, namely a sheriff, how to do their job.
“While petitioner might argue that the governor has the authority to prioritize the emergency health crisis over other law enforcement matters, the statutes do not provide a basis for this argument, nor would they, given that a governor does not have the expertise to direct Sheriff Helton or any other law enforcement leader,” the response stated. “No such authority is provided by state constitution or statutes.”
Helton said it’s also about prioritizing where law enforcement is needed most, on crimes happening in the county, or enforcing the governors executive orders.
“We have the people’s business to deal with,” Helton said. “Crimes continue to happen, so your talking about pulling resources to another. … We have to prioritize what the people’s business is and that’s what we are going to continue to do.
The conclusion of the response states Helton, and the Lea County Sheriff’s Office, have not done anything wrong, and allegations against him are not accurate.
“It’s one of those things we go through as elected officials, especially being a sheriff.” Helton said. “We’ll see what the Supreme Court says.”
The response also requests the petition be dismissed.
“This petition is fact based and ineffectual because the factual allegations are incorrect,” the response stated.
Helton said while he has disagreed with the governor on many issues, the AG’s action trying to force his office to enforce PHEOs is distracting all sides from actual state and law enforcement business and is ready for this particular aspect to be over.
“It’s no secret I’ve fought with the governor over a lot of issues,” Helton said. “I want this over so we can continue with the people’s business. We’ll let the Supreme Court decide, and at the end of the day, it’s our (every law enforcement officer) discretion. That’s the power this state and the country gives to law enforcement.”
Blake Ovard may be reached at .