Redistricting attorneys OK'd for Legislature

-A A +A
By Barry Massey

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A team of private lawyers will defend the Democratic-controlled Legislature in a court fight over redistricting, state legislative leaders decided Monday despite objections from Republicans.

The Legislative Council voted along party lines to authorize the lawyers. They will represent the Legislature in lawsuits over plans for new boundaries of districts for Congress, the state House of Representatives, the state Senate and Public Regulation Commission.

Senate GOP Leader Stuart Ingle, of Portales, said in an interview that separate lawyers should have been authorized for Republicans as well as Democrats, who hold majorities in the House and Senate, because redistricting decisions were largely divided along party lines during the special session.

"If one side is going to get lawyers paid for, the other side should get it too," said Ingle.

Senate President Pro Tem Tim Jennings, D-Rowell, said both political parties will have an opportunity to voice their views during the lawsuits. Groups of Democrats and Republicans, including the No. 2 House GOP leader, are among those who have brought lawsuits so far.

Republicans opposed Democratic-backed House and Senate redistricting plans passed by the Legislature, and GOP Gov. Susana Martinez was expected to veto those proposals. The Legislature failed to approve a congressional redistricting plan, although a proposal passed the Senate with only Democrats backing it.

The Legislature needs lawyers for redistricting litigation, Jennings said, because the governor is named as a defendant in some cases. Also named in several of the lawsuits were House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe, and Jennings, who will be represented by the Legislature's lawyers.

The lawsuits will present a court with "confrontation between the executive and her veto authority and the legislative branch and our authority to make a decision on what our districts are," Jennings said.

"We're doing this as an institution," Jennings said.

The same legal team represented the Legislature in lawsuits over congressional and House redistricting a decade ago. Its three main lawyers also were hired last year to advise legislators on redistricting issues before and during a special session, which ended last month.

The three, who are being paid $260 an hour each, are Luis Stelzner of Albuquerque, Richard Olson of Roswell and Michael Browde, an emeritus law professor at the University of New Mexico. Stelzner and Olson, a former GOP state legislator, work for separate law firms.

For their work 10 years ago, the team was paid about $653,700 for litigation costs, including fees for expert witnesses during trials, according to the Legislative Council Service. The council makes administrative decisions for the Legislature, and its members include Democratic and GOP leaders in the House and Senate, as well as rank-and-file legislators.

Taxpayers footed the bill for nearly $3 million in other legal fees for redistricting a decade ago, paying for lawyers representing then-Gov. Gary Johnson, the lieutenant governor, groups of Democrats and Republicans, Indian tribes and Hispanic activists.

House GOP Leader Tom Taylor of Farmington said the lawyers are "very upstanding individuals."

"But the fact of the matter is, they work for the majority because the majority can hire and fire those guys without the minority," Taylor said.

The state Supreme Court is expected to decide later this month whether it will consolidate redistricting lawsuits in Santa Fe. The court has told lawyers to submit their arguments on the proposal by Oct. 10.

A group of Democrats, including Rep. Brian Egolf of Santa Fe, asked the justices last week to consolidate all redistricting cases and appoint one judge to handle them in state district court in Santa Fe.

Republicans have filed separate redistricting lawsuits in Lovington, in southeastern New Mexico, and in Albuquerque. Lawsuits were filed in Santa Fe by Democrats and Laguna Pueblo.