If anyone thought New Mexico could begin its research program on industrial hemp anytime soon, the state Supreme Court scotched that notion Tuesday.
In a 3-2 ruling, the high court set aside a Santa Fe district judge’s ruling that two hemp measures and eight other bills vetoed without explanation by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez are valid state laws.
District Judge Sarah Singleton decided that Martinez did not legally veto the bills so they would take effect. Singleton found that the state constitution requires a governor to explain vetoes made while the Legislature is in session so that lawmakers have an opportunity to correct deficiencies cited by the governor.
Martinez appealed Singleton’s ruling and won at least a temporary stay of the judge’s decision.
The Supreme Court did not rule on the merits of Singleton’s legal logic. Rather, a majority of its members decided to block Singleton’s ruling until the Supreme Court has “a full and fair opportunity” to consider the case.
The action means that, even though the secretary of state formally listed the 10 bills as law following Singleton’s decision, the measures will not take effect for at least a few months, if ever.
Chief Justice Judith Nakamura and Justices Edward Chavez and Petra Jimenez Maes voted to reverse Singleton’s ruling. Justices Charles Daniels and Barbara Vigil dissented.
A sponsor of one of the hemp bills, Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, blasted the court’s ruling.
“I usually don’t criticize the Supreme Court because that’s their bailiwick,” said McSorley, a lawyer. “However, if they don’t realize the importance of doing this in a timely way, they don’t deserve to be on the Supreme Court. … You’ve heard the expression, ‘Justice delayed is justice denied’? This is the epitome of that.”
The Supreme Court has not scheduled a hearing on the merits of the veto case. Before that is done, each side will have to submit briefs on its arguments.
McSorley, along with a majority of lawmakers from both political parties, for years has fought Martinez on the hemp issue. McSorley said industrial hemp, a tame cousin of the marijuana plant, could be a sterling cash crop for New Mexico farmers.
Hemp is used to manufacture everything from clothing to carpeting to auto dashboards. Congress has signaled that it is moving toward opening up the country to producing industrial hemp, and McSorley wants New Mexico farmers to be positioned to share in the economic prosperity.
Martinez, a former prosecutor, previously opposed the hemp measure because she said police could confuse the plant with marijuana. But she wrote no explanation last year in vetoing two hemp bills.
The lawmakers’ main argument in asking that her vetoes be invalidated is a section of the state constitution dealing with how a governor responds to legislative bills.
“If he approves, he shall sign it, and deposit it with the secretary of state; otherwise, he shall return it to the house in which it originated, with his objections,” the constitution states.
In their suit, lawmakers cited a Colorado Supreme Court decision in a similar case from the early 1990s. Colorado’s state constitution has a similar provision regarding vetoes.
In Martinez’s formal response to the suit, her lawyer, Paul Kennedy, argued that the state constitution “does not expressly state that the governor must return a bill ‘with objections’ during the relevant three-day period in order to preclude it from becoming law.” Martinez, Kennedy said, denied that her return of any of the bills was “out of compliance with the strict requirements of the constitution.”
In addition to the hemp bills, up in the air is legislation that would allow high school students to count computer science courses toward the math or science credits needed to graduate.
Other bills would amend the policy for awarding scholarships to medical students who promise to work in underserved areas, give local governments a new option to pay for the expansion of broadband access, and keep open a program that pays for technology upgrades at public schools.
Martinez vetoed the 10 bills near the end of a combative 60-day legislative session in which she continuously knocked heads with Democrats who control the Legislature.
The 2018 session will begin Jan. 16. It’s possible that the governor and legislators could come to a compromise on hemp and some of the other issues and approve new bills before the Supreme Court hears the appeal. But considering Martinez’s relationship with the Legislature in the previous seven years, this doesn’t seem likely.
The 10 bills are just a small portion of the legislation Martinez vetoed last year. In all, she vetoed more than 140 bills, which is more than half the number of bills signed. She also vetoed the entire budgets for colleges and universities and the entire legislative branch, forcing a short special session in May to pass a new budget.