N.M. high court rejects 10 Martinez vetoes

Bills nixed without timely explanation to become law

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The New Mexico Supreme Court on Wednesday (April 25) upheld a judge's decision that 10 vetoes issued by Gov. Susana Martinez last year are invalid and ordered the bills she nixed can go into effect.

Mostly noncontroversial, the bills include measures that allow for research of industrial hemp production, give local governments a new option to pay for expanding broadband access and change how scholarships are awarded to medical students who commit to working in underserved areas.

The decision by New Mexico's highest court was a rebuke to the governor, who had vetoed the bills without explanation -- at least initially. With its decision, the court clarified that the state constitution requires a governor provide some sort of reason for vetoing a bill prior to the last three days of a legislative session. And in turn, the court not only ruled that the governor had gone about vetoing these bills improperly but also narrowed the veto power of her successors, at least slightly.

Perhaps most important to those who have been backing these bills, the decision ends a nearly yearlong legal battle and clears the way for ideas that had won broad bipartisan support in the Legislature.

Martinez vetoed the 10 bills over the course of several days during a particularly acrimonious stretch of the early 2017 legislative session.

Lawmakers suspected the move was a sort of political retribution meted out by the two-term Republican around the time the Senate voted to override yet another one of her vetoes.

The Legislature sued Martinez over the 10 bills, arguing that without any explanation of her vetoes, legislators did not have a way to know whether they should change the bills and try passing them again or attempt to override the veto.

The state constitution says that when the Legislature sends the governor a bill before the last few days of the session, she has three days to act.

"If he approves, he shall sign it, and deposit it with the secretary of state; otherwise, he shall return it to the house in which it originated, with his objections," the constitution reads.

A District Court judge in Santa Fe agreed last year, overturning the governor's vetoes.

But lawyers representing Martinez appealed and got a stay -- meaning the laws did not take effect as the case wended through the courts.

In oral arguments before the state Supreme Court on Wednesday, lawyers for the governor argued she had explained herself, albeit not with a veto message. Instead, she sent an executive message to legislators explaining she had vetoed several bills because lawmakers had not yet passed a budget or approved some of her appointees.

It did not matter that the executive message was not attached to the bills, Paul Kennedy, a lawyer for the governor, told the state Supreme Court during oral arguments in Santa Fe on Wednesday morning.

Kennedy suggested the whole issue might really just amount to a clerical matter.

"If it comes in a constitutional period of time, does it matter if it comes with a staple or a paperclip?" Kennedy said.

The five-member court deliberated behind closed doors for about an hour, with District Judge James M. Hudson of Roswell filling in the seat left vacant by the retirement of Justice Edward Chávez.

When the court returned, it sided with the Legislature.

The governor must state her objections at the time she vetoes a bill, Chief Justice Judith Nakamura said -- not just within three days.

The court then lifted the stay, meaning all 10 bills will become law.

The Governor's Office blasted the ruling.

"Today's ruling shows one can pick and choose when it comes to following the constitution," Emilee Cantrell, a spokeswoman for Martinez, said in an email. "There is no dispute these bills were vetoed and yet partisan legislators along with submissive judges can circumvent an entire branch of government."

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, a Democrat from Santa Fe, maintained the decision clarifies the separation of powers.

"The legislative branch passes legislation," he said. "... Obviously, the executive can exercise the veto authority. But the ruling today makes clear that has to be done right."

At least one of the disputed bills is already on track to become state policy. The day before Wednesday's hearing, the Martinez administration announced it would put into effect a policy allowing students to count a computer science course toward the credits required to graduate from high school, ensuring that whatever the court decided, the idea would come to fruition in at least some form and Martinez would avoid the judges ordering her to implement the law.

That in part prompted state Sen. Joseph Cervantes, a Democrat from Las Cruces and candidate for governor, to sum up the legal battle on Twitter as: "Lots of wasted legal time and money which should have been used to help New Mexicans get ahead."

Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican­.com. Follow him on Twitter @andrewboxford.

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