SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – The New Mexico Supreme Court denied a request to allow the public into the Roundhouse during the upcoming special session, this comes after hours of arguments.
“One of the most significant ways to preserve the health of all New Mexicans, which we think it’s more important, is to prohibit mass gatherings,” said Attorney Thomas Hnasko.
The New Mexico Supreme Court deliberated after hearing arguments Tuesday over whether the Legislature can close the Roundhouse to the public during its special session on Thursday because of concerns over COVID-19. The bi-partisan Legislative Council voted unanimously last week to only let lawmakers, legislative staff and some media into the Roundhouse during the session to balance the budget.
Twenty-four lawmakers filed a petition, asking the Supreme Court to block that decision. The petition argues that prohibiting the public from entering the Roundhouse violates the Constitutional requirement to make all legislative sessions public. However, that was denied by the state Supreme Court in a split decision.
“They are essentially shutting the door to the Roundhouse, and that’s no longer available,” said Attorney A. Blair Dunn, representing the petitioners. “They’re saying you must only communicate through this other fashion.”
Justice C. Shannon Bacon expressed concern over-relying on internet live streams to make the session public. She said large parts of the state do not have broadband and thousands of people do not have computers. “We have a technological desert in New Mexico,” Justice Bacon said.
The New Mexico Constitution states that “all sessions of each house shall be public.” Justices challenged attorneys on both sides to define the term, “public,” and explain in detail what constitutes a public session.
“The Legislative Council has determined that, under these unique circumstances, that we can have a robust satisfaction of the Constitutional requirements by allowing for live streaming of all committee meetings, all floor sessions and participation in committee meetings by email or Zoom participation,” said Hnasko, representing the Legislative Council.
Hnasko also pointed out that 33 state capitols in the country have been closed to the public during the COVID-19 pandemic. “One of the most significant ways to preserve the health of all New Mexicans, which we think is more important, is to prohibit mass gatherings,” Hnasko said.
Chief Justice Judith Nakamura said the court plans to release a more detailed written opinion on their ruling. “We will issue a written opinion but again the writ is denied, which means the session can proceed as outlined,” said Nakamura.