SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – New Mexico Supreme Court Justices have handed a major victory to Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration in the state’s efforts to enforce public health orders. Following oral arguments, the state’s high court ruled Tuesday morning the government has the authority to level $5,000 civil administrative penalties against businesses and entities found in violation of a public health order.

The ruling is tied to a lawsuit filed by a handful of New Mexico businesses in May who argued the $5,000 civil penalty doesn’t apply to them. Attorneys for the seven businesses behind the lawsuit said Tuesday the civil penalty only applies to a narrow group of people and health care entities.

“The $5,000 penalty would apply, first off, I suppose in addition to say, contempt of court provisions for someone who violated a quarantine or isolation which is what… more than anything else, is what the act is devoted to,” said Carter B. Harrison IV, an attorney representing the businesses. “The section dealing with health care facilities and health supplies, and the disposal of bodies, violations of those orders could also give rise to a $5,000 penalty.”

Justices decided on the outcome of the case from bench around 11:30 Tuesday morning, roughly an hour and a half after oral arguments from attorneys representing the businesses and Democratic Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham. The Justices did not provide much detail behind their decision.

“The first question is quote, “whether the state may issue civil administrative penalties, under the Public Health Emergency Response Act for violations of restrictions on mass gatherings and business operations contained in emergency public health orders,” said Chief Justice Michael Vigil. “The court has concluded that the legislature has clearly given the governor that authority.”

According to the New Mexico Department of Health, the governor’s office has issued $5,000 civil administrative penalties against 14 different businesses since the start of the pandemic. Most of those businesses are located in southeast New Mexico:

  • Papa’s Pawn (Grants)
  • From Rags 2 Riches (Albuquerque)
  • Arroyo Vino (Las Campanas, Santa Fe)
  • Jalisco Café (Silver City)
  • Anaheim Jacks (Ruidoso)
  • Mayor Martin Hicks (Grants)
  • Alien Motor Speedway (Roswell)
  • Casey’s Restaurant (Hobbs)
  • Pizza Inn (Hobbs and Carlsbad) (3 locations)
  • Trinity Inn (Carlsbad)
  • Los Hermanitos (Farmington) (2 locations)
  • Country Family Restaurant (Kirtland)
  • TJ’s Diner (Farmington)
  • Outlaw Grill (Eunice and Hobbs) (2 locations)

The other penalty outlined in state law for violating the Public Health Order is much cheaper, carrying a $100 fine tied to a petty misdemeanor. The businesses argue this is the appropriate fine. In an interview with KRQE News 13 about the lawsuit in May, New Mexico GOP Chairman Steve Pearce indicated some businesses would be more willing to accept the risk of only being hit with a $100 fine.

“You can put a $100 fine, but you’ve got to prove that in court,” Pearce said. “So, I think we’re going to give a pathway for every business in New Mexico to open up, and then the governor has to close them down individually, and they only risk $100 each, $5,000 businesses can’t risk, $100 they can.”

An attorney for Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham argued Tuesday that the state is allowed to use either the $100 or $5,000 fines to gain compliance quickly. “The only tool we have currently to stem transmission of COVID-19 is social distancing, and so we need compliance, we need immediate compliance we can’t say, ‘well, hopefully you’ll comply eight months down the road,’ we need compliance now,” said Matthew Garcia, attorney for the Governor’s Office.

In a statement posted to Twitter Tuesday, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham wrote, “The state shouldn’t have to fine anybody. Doing the right thing in a crisis shouldn’t be something we have to argue about. But anyone endangering the lives of New Mexicans will face the consequences. My thanks to everyone doing their part every day.”

The New Mexico Supreme Court declined to rule on another matter tied to the lawsuit. Businesses initially asked the justices to decide if they were owed money for the time they’ve been shut down, since the state forced them into closure.

Justices are may also take on another case related to restaurants and the state’s ban on indoor dining soon, however, it’s unclear in what form that could happen. The Supreme Court hasn’t scheduled oral arguments in the case and it’s unclear if they will.

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