Civil Rights Come to New Mexico

And it’s long past due

Saying civil rights have come to New Mexico feels a bit absurd—such rights are supposed to be bestowed upon everyone at birth, but I say it in a legal sense, referring to the struggle of vulnerable populations. It’s worth tentatively affirming.

Call me easily impressed, naïve, or optimistic (you won’t be the first), but I have been inspired by several measures that were successfully enacted during the recent New Mexico Legislature, the most prominent among them named the New Mexico Civil Rights Act. The measures therein all relate to enhancing a cooperative society. And although an important bill meant to stymie predatory lending in the state failed (Democrats will hopefully push it again next year), the Legislature ultimately delivered a civics lesson that, boiled down, effectively says making existence—and, consequently, coexistence—easier is a positive good. There has already been a great deal written about these bills while they were being debated, and it shouldn’t be hard to see their positive benefits. These strike me as self-evident, but I would like to take this space to affirm their civic virtue.

Lawmakers enacted measures that guarantee paid sick leave, pave the way for universal pre-K childcare and establish the right to die for the terminally ill. Recreational cannabis was legalized in a special session, plaintiffs’ rights were expanded and, thankfully, New Mexicans can finally sue police officers for civil rights violations in state court. That last one opens the door for judges elected in our state to decide how expansive our rights under the New Mexico Constitution—rather than relying on appointed federal judges.

Sick workers and parents have finally been recognized for having a political identity with a special grievance—and don’t laugh over cannabis users’ civic right to get high. It paves the way toward dismantling the system by which citizens are excessively penalized for minor drug crimes.

One of the more publicized of the new measures, however, is the Civil Rights Act which, in part, deals with suing police officers in a time that has been marked by a string of police killings, more of which have consistently been revealed by civilian cell phone videos and bodycam footage. We live in the wake of the killing of George Floyd (whose killer Derek Chauvin was convicted as this issue went to print) and, more recently, the killing of Daunte Wright, also in Minnesota, by a cop who claims to have confused a Taser with a handgun.

Whether you feel pro-cop or skeptical about law enforcement, the public outcry against these slayings has reached a fever pitch. Among the villians in the eyes of those pushing for reform: qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that has evolved over decades in the federal system that makes successfully suing cops for on-duty misconduct nearly impossible—unless the plaintiff can show a case that’s pretty much identical.

You won’t find qualified immunity in any statute books.

It was created from whole cloth and bolstered by mostly conservative judges. The effect has been to limit folks’ access to justice.

“The New Mexico civil rights bill won’t end qualified immunity federally,” says Barron Jones, a legal strategist for the New Mexico ACLU, “but it will protect plaintiffs from having to face it in [state] District Court.”

Forbidding qualified immunity on a state level shortens the gap between courtroom justice and public outcry, and I hope it inspires a national trend, but the Civil Rights Act also has other applications. It gives New Mexicans previously limited to federal courts the authority to file discrimination suits against public bodies for monetary damages of up to $2 million in district courts. Jones points out that while there are numerous state courthouses, there are only three federal courts in the state.

“Your civil rights shouldn’t depend on where you live,” he says. “Your ability to file a discrimination suit shouldn’t depend on possibly driving 15 hours to a courthouse.”

Of course, the list of changes within the Civil Rights Act aren’t perfect, but it’s still a tilt in a leftwing direction. But why is this happening? It’s essential to trace the lines. In New Mexico, where police shoot people at rates far higher than in nearly any other state, the lines stretch back—way back.

Civil rights are almost always linked to another phenomenon: protest. Let’s face it, we’re seeing the positive upshots of a year characterized by sharp critique of national social policies during the COVID-19 crisis, the dearth of social services and civil rights, and street protests by determined activists from Black Lives Matter and other groups. We’re getting a glimpse into why these protests were worth it and, hopefully, we have begun to appreciate a certain indelible relationship.

Periods of protest are usually noted for exacerbating tensions, but we must consider that they often flare up in response to tensions that have become unbearable. Police protest has a long, proud history in New Mexico. The Civil Rights Act wouldn’t exist without activism that long preceded Floyd’s death beneath Chauvin’s knee.

I certainly do not encourage violence or pointless chaos (when this happens), but we should understand that vociferous protest cannot be disentangled from civil rights. Let’s begin to view progressive legislative policy and conscious social protest like a two-sided coin. Protests will occur nationwide again, but when they do, think about the positives that may follow.

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