Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include more detail on the AG’s letter
SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – In New Mexico, the attorney general (AG) is the chief legal counsel for the executive branch of the state government. That means part of AG Raúl Torrez’s duty is to help Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s cabinet when they face legal issues, but he said he won’t support her in lawsuits over the recent, controversial public health order.
On Tuesday, September 12, the attorney general sent a letter to Lujan Grisham to let her know he won’t defend her in four lawsuits filed against her.
“Though I recognize my statutory obligation as New Mexico’s chief legal officer to defend state officials when they are sued in their official capacity, my duty to uphold and defend the constitutional rights of every citizen takes precedence,” Torrez said in the letter.
Torrez also criticized the governor’s order. “I do not believe that the Emergency Order will have any meaningful impact on public safety, but more importantly, I do not believe it passes constitutional muster.”
He’s not alone; there’s a growing list of New Mexico law enforcement leaders speaking out against the order including Bernalillo County Sheriff John Allen, Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina, Bernalillo County District Attorney Sam Bregman, and the New Mexico Chiefs of Police Association.
“A better place to start is for the governor to address the problem of pretrial release of people charged of violent crimes using a gun. In other words, we can hold people accused of crime accountable, rather than citizens with Second Amendment rights to possess a firearm,” said the president of the association and Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe.
“Because of the oath that I have taken to uphold and protect and defend not only the state constitution but [also] the federal constitution, I’m not ethically permitted to defend this action,” Torrez told KRQE News 13.
So, what happens if the lawyer tasked with defending public officials declines to defend the governor? She’ll have to find her own lawyer to tackle the lawsuits or defend herself – she has a law degree from the University of New Mexico.
“We will allow the administration to hire its own outside lawyers, at their own expense,” Torrez said. In the letter, Torrez notes that he agrees gun violence has had a devastating impact on New Mexico, but explains that he believes using a public health order is not the appropriate way to address the issue. He calls for “more and better-trained police officers; stricter gun laws and tougher guidelines for pretrial detention; robust mental health and drug treatment; rehabilitation programs to reduce recidivism; real-time data on gun crimes and gun trafficking; and a protective services framework that keeps today’s child victims from maturing into the next generation of repeat offenders.”
Broadly, the governor’s temporary public health order is aimed at reducing gun violence and drug use. It prohibits the public from carrying firearms – either openly or concealed – in some public places, except in limited circumstances. The order specifically targets Bernalillo County, where an apparent road rage shooting recently left an 11-year-old dead.
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The order goes beyond limiting guns within the community. It also directs the New Mexico Department of Health to produce a report on gunshot victims that show up in New Mexico hospitals, it directs state law enforcement to work with local law enforcement to tackle crime and warrants, it directs the Children, Youth, and Families Department to suspend the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative, and allows all firearm owners to receive one free trigger lock by emailing email@example.com.
In response to the AG’s letter, Caroline Sweeney, the governor’s press secretary, provided a statement: “The governor’s office received the letter from the Attorney General Torrez and let me be clear – Gov. Lujan Grisham did not ask the attorney general to represent the state. The governor is looking for state leaders to step up and take bold steps to make New Mexicans safer from the scourge of gun violence. We invite the Attorney General to turn his attention to that effort.”
The AG is asking for help on both sides of the political aisle to come together to have these discussions and put together a different plan to tackle the crime issue like another omnibus crime package.