NM Supreme Court denies petition to open Roundhouse during June special session

The New Mexico Supreme Court has denied a writ of mandamus regarding access to the Roundhouse during the upcoming special session set to begin June 18.

Chief Justice Judith Nakamura made the announcement late Tuesday after the Court listened to arguments earlier in the day. She said the Court was split on the issue and it would write an opinion.

Twenty-four New Mexico lawmakers submitted the petition on June 11, 2020, asking the court to block a decision by top-ranking legislators to close the Roundhouse to lobbyists and the public.

The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government (FOG) shares the petitioners’ concerns about any legislative action that would compromise the constitutional principle that “[a]ll sessions of each house shall be public.”  This section of the Constitution – like another section providing that every piece of legislation must be “read publicly in full in each house, and thereupon … signed by the presiding officers of each house in open session” – makes clear that lawmaking can’t be allowed to take place out of the public eye. 

At the same time, FOG finds it difficult to believe that these provisions disable the legislature from responding to emergencies that make in-person sessions impossible or unreasonably risky. 

The language of the Open Meetings Act seems to be even clearer than these constitutional provisions – the statute says that “[a]ll meetings of any public body … shall be public meetings, and all persons so desiring shall be permitted to attend and listen to the deliberations and proceedings” – and yet our Supreme Court has held that “the words used mean only that the governmental entity must allow reasonable public access for those who wish to attend and listen to the proceedings” and should not be construed in a way that “unduly burden[s] the appropriate exercise of governmental decision-making and ability to act.” 

That’s why FOG outlined a list of the remedies we proposed in a letter sent on June 11 to legislative leaders. The remedies include:

  • __ all of the bills that will be voted upon must be publicly available 48 to 72 hours in advance of any votes;
  • __ legislators must cease debate when their webcasting system inevitably crashes and not begin again until the webcast is back up and running;
  • __ secret communications, such as Chat or any other running commentary function, are not available to the public at the time they are being made, therefore Legislators should not use them;
  • __ accommodations be made for New Mexicans who require ADA accessible options and others who do not have internet access or personal computers and
  • __ reporters and broadcasters should be allowed the greatest access possible to all proceedings inside the Roundhouse.

Advancements in technology have provided new ways for government to share information. By incorporating these technologies in the upcoming special session, FOG believes New Mexico lawmakers can create an environment of openness, transparency, honesty, accuracy and accountability.