A state District Court judge on Wednesday ruled that SFR's lawsuit against the City of Santa Fe alleging violations of the state's public records law may proceed—despite an attempt by the city to have the case tossed out.
At the heart of the case is the city's longstanding policy to keep secret whether its employees—particularly Santa Fe police officers—have been disciplined for alleged misconduct.
SFR has reported extensively on the policy and its negative effects on public trust for years, including in a cover story in 2017 that explored the accountability-free policy and showed how it runs contrary to practices in even the most secretive police department's in the state.
The newspaper sued the city and SFPD's records custodian, Greg Gurule, in March 2019. The lawsuit claims that officials violated the state Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA) by denying SFR's requests for records relating to potential discipline against Ben Valdez, who is now among SFPD's highest-ranking officers, and for disciplinary records showing possible discipline for three officers against whom citizen complaints had apparently resulted in insurance payouts.
The city countered in June with a motion asking Judge Bryan Beidscheid to dismiss the case, arguing that it had complied with IPRA by withholding records that amounted to "matters of opinion" and could implicate people accused of, but not charged with a crime.
In court on Wednesday, Assistant City Attorney Gabriel Smith said higher New Mexico courts have already determined that keeping records such as those SFR seeks is legal, calling it a "settled matter."
Daniel Yohalem and Katherine Murray, SFR's attorneys, disagree.
Murray argued on Wednesday that the IPRA statute itself does not exempt disciplinary records from public release. She went on to cite several court decisions that have broadened the public's right to see disciplinary records for government employees and narrowed privileges officials are allowed to claim when holding records back.
In his ruling, Beidscheid made clear that he wasn't ordering the city to turn over the records—at least not yet.
But he agreed with Murray that the language in IPRA, coupled with an appellate court ruling in a seminal 2010 public records case, meant he could not grant the city's motion to dismiss SFR's case.
So, he denied it.
Beidscheid then mused on the thorny road ahead: The question of whether police discipline should be public has long bedevilled New Mexico courts and policymakers, leaving the judge in a position in which he is not clear even on the best process to proceed.
Beidscheid asked the lawyers on both sides to come up with a "mechanism" that would allow him to decide whether SFR should get the records it asked for.
There is no next hearing scheduled.
But one revelation did emerge from Wednesday's hearing: Smith admitted that Gurule, SFPD's records custodian and spokesman, never even looked at the records SFR requested to determine whether any should be released. Instead, he simply denied the records requests.
Beidscheid appeared to seize on the failure to search, asking Smith about it several times.
IPRA requires records custodians to search for records that would be responsive to requests, then decide whether the law allows any of them to be withheld.
It is not clear whether that is Gurule's usual habit when IPRA requests hit his desk—or whether his actions after SFR's inquiries will impact this case.