ALBUQUERQUE, NM - Today, international law firm Faegre Drinker and Albuquerque-based Law Office of Ryan J. Villa announced their fight to protect incarcerated New Mexicans has escalated to the New Mexico Supreme Court. The move comes after the state Court of Appeals passed the case on, saying it was of such public concern that it would be best heard before the Supreme Court. The case heads to New Mexico’s highest court amid reports that three more New Mexicans housed in the state’s prisons system have died from COVID-19 and hundreds more have been infected.
“Coronavirus cases continue to surge in New Mexico, putting incarcerated people in far greater danger than they already were,” said Chris Casolaro, attorney at Faegre Drinker. “Time is of the absolute essence. If the Court does not order the state to immediately take action, including to reduce the number of people incarcerated in New Mexico prisons and establish adequate protections, the death toll will continue to rise. That’s why we are bringing every resource we have to bear.”
The plaintiffs, which include the ACLU of New Mexico, the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association (NMCDLA), and several incarcerated individuals, first filed the class action lawsuit in August in the First Judicial District Court against the State of New Mexico for failing to protect the lives and constitutional rights of people housed in the state’s prison system. After the Court dismissed the case on procedural grounds, the legal groups appealed the decision, and the Court of Appeals, recognizing the urgency of the case, has now sent it to the Supreme Court.
“We can’t underestimate how dire the situation is for incarcerated people right now,” said Lalita Moskowitz, staff attorney with ACLU of New Mexico. “For people whose lives are on the line, each day matters. They don’t have time to file individual grievances with an uncooperative corrections department that has shown nothing but disregard for their health and wellbeing. They must be able to take their plight directly to the courts. Their lives depend on it.”
In April, before major outbreaks occurred in the state’s prisons, the New Mexico Supreme Court heard a similar case brought by the Law Offices of the Public Defender, the ACLU, and NMCDLA, arguing that the State had deliberately and callously put people at risk by not substantially reducing the prison population. The Court denied the petition alleging the groups could not prove the State’s actions were deliberate and intentional. This time, the issue before the court is whether or not incarcerated people in an emergency situation have the right to skip a lengthy and often futile grievance process with the New Mexico Corrections Department and go directly to the courts to argue for their release.
Now that the Court of Appeals has passed the case on, the New Mexico Supreme Court must decide whether or not to hear it.