High court upholds governor's authority to issue stiff fines
August 5, 2020
The New Mexico Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled the governor is authorized to impose stiff fines for violations of the state’s public health order during the coronavirus pandemic.
The decision from the bench arrived after about an hour of deliberation by the justices following 75 minutes of arguments and questioning of each sides’ lawyers during a videoconference in the court’s chambers in Santa Fe.
The decision fends off a legal challenge to the state’s enforcement power as it seeks to continue a ban on indoor dining at restaurants and impose other restrictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 650 people.
In a brief statement, Chief Justice Michael Vigil said the New Mexico Legislature gave Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham the authority to issue fines of up to $5,000 a day for violating an emergency public health order.
The court also rejected an argument the state owes businesses money for the time they were shut down.
The decision set aside a May lawsuit filed in Clovis. Interested parties in the case included Sid Strebeck of K-Bob’s Steakhouse in Clovis, along with the owners of an outdoor market in Socorro, an auto sales lot and fitness center in Lovington, restaurants in Maxwell and Albuquerque and a massage parlor in Hobbs.
Matt Garcia, speaking on a behalf of governor and other state officials, argued the laws regarding health orders contain “broad language” to give officials flexibility and authority to deal with different emergencies.
Garcia argued the health order contains a graduated system of compliance, and the stiffest fines were imposed on the “most egregious” offenders. He said only 16 businesses have been given $5,000 fines for violating the order.
“What we’re trying to do is get immediate compliance” during the pandemic, Garcia said of the higher fines.
Lawyer Carter Harrison IV, arguing on behalf of the businesses, said the governor exceeded her authority with the $5,000-a-day fines and was limited to $100 citations.
Harrison argued the health order is “stopgap” during an epidemic and that the New Mexico Legislature was the ultimate authority on regulating businesses. He argued for the need “to strike a balance” and “a proportionate response” between public health and the law.
The state’s high court also is expected to argue another case soon related to restaurants and the indoor dining ban.
The proceedings were livestreamed over the internet by KNME-TV, a PBS affiliate.