The following op-ed was originally submitted to the Albuquerque Journal but was never published.
A recent Albuquerque Journal article implies that House Speaker Brian Egolf is sponsoring the New Mexico Civil Rights Act, HB 4, simply to enrich himself by creating a new means of suing the government. While the Speaker is a lawyer, he has also proven himself a champion of civil rights. In recent years he sponsored bills protecting a woman’s right to abortion. He also helped lead the legal battle to ensure that same-sex couples could marry in our state. If the Speaker’s profession as a civil rights attorney bears any relationship to his sponsorship of HB 4, it is that they both stem from the same desire to make New Mexico a fairer, freer, more just place. To suggest otherwise not only disrespects him, but also the historic piece of legislation that he, Rep. Georgene Louis, Sen. Joseph Cervantes, and Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero have put forth.
The New Mexico Civil Rights Act is so-named because it promises to do for the state of New Mexico exactly what the federal Civil Rights Act of 1871 did for our nation. It provides a legal mechanism for people to go to court and demand redress for violations of their rights under the Bill of Rights of our Constitution. Currently, most New Mexicans have no means of actualizing the lofty freedoms contained in our state Bill of Rights. They are guarantees on paper, but not in fact. HB 4 would end that sad irony, literally breathing life into those cherished liberties.
History tells us that our forefathers passed the federal Civil Rights Act in response to a growing trend of Klan violence against African Americans after the Reconstruction. The origins of HB 4 are not so different. We are debating a New Mexico Civil Rights Act at this moment, as never before, because video after video, story after heartbreaking story has shown our nation the truth that police in our country all too frequently brutalize and kill Black and Brown people with little, if any, accountability for their actions.
Racialized violence is a deeply entrenched pattern in American policing. We need every tool in our tool chest to correct this historic injustice. While the New Mexico Civil Rights Act won’t accomplish that alone, it is certainly one of those tools.
And yet, the Journal article would have New Mexicans believe that HB 4 is a scheme cooked up by trial attorneys to make more money suing government. That our civil rights are too expensive for local governments to afford.
What about the costs borne by everyday New Mexicans who have no recourse when government actors in our state violate their rights? Recently the Journal North editorial board called for the state to investigate an alarming pattern of sexual assault of female inmates in New Mexico prisons. How many of those women will be denied justice because the hurdle of qualified immunity makes the costs and time needed to litigate a federal civil rights case prohibitive?
A New Mexico Civil Rights Act would correct that, empowering the people of our state to argue for their rights under a New Mexico Constitution, in a New Mexico court, heard by a judge who is elected by New Mexicans. Don’t we as New Mexicans deserve that possibility?
Just as the federal Civil Rights Act did in 1871, the New Mexico Civil Rights Act stands for the proposition that our Bill of Rights should signify something more than just pretty words on paper. That all New Mexicans should have a fair path to justice. HB 4 continues a march toward justice that our forefathers began a century and a-half ago. The question before our legislators, and this newspaper, is whether they wish to join that march or stand in its way.