Senate approves plan to create state civil rights office

By: - March 14, 2023 4:00 am
New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez stands at a wooden podium. Another man in a dark suit looks on.

New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torres said the civil rights division would have a primary responsibility to ensure that no New Mexican is discriminated against under traditional civil rights laws. (Photo by Gino Gutierrez for Source NM)

The New Mexico Senate has honored a request by the state’s top prosecutor to create a new state agency devoted to civil rights.

Senate Bill 426 would create the first-ever civil rights division inside the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office. Attorney General Raúl Torrez asked Sen. Joseph Cervantes (D-Las Cruces) to carry the bill.

The division would have a primary responsibility to ensure that no New Mexican is discriminated against under traditional civil rights laws, but would also offer protections for vulnerable populations in the state, Torrez told the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 8.

On Monday afternoon the Senate voted 23-15 to pass the legislation. To become law, it still needs to go through at least two committees and a floor vote in the House of Representatives before the legislative session ends at noon on Saturday.

“We’re trying to catch up with some of the other states in the nation,” Torrez said.

He pointed to other examples including the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division that was created in 1957 and the California Civil Rights Department established in 1959.

The New Mexico AG’s office already has broad authority to look into civil rights matters, Torrez said, “but this bill includes specific tools that wouldn’t otherwise be authorized under statute.”

If passed, state civil rights prosecutors could ask a potential target of an investigation for records and collect them. If the target complains that the request is too broad or burdensome, they could ask a state district court to refine it, Torrez said.

Other state laws dealing with antitrust and unfair trade practices allow the AG’s office to collect information and investigate alleged violations before going to court, Torrez said, but not in the area of civil rights.

The bill would also allow the office to step in or join other civil rights cases that may have been started by someone else, Cervantes said.

Torrez said he anticipates hiring between five and 10 attorneys to work full-time in the division.

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.