The battle heats up

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Governor's license caper leads to court

By Hal Rhodes

Gov. Susana Martinez has been hauled into court again, although this time it’s Martinez’s Taxation and Revenue Secretary Demesia Padilla who is targeted in a case filed in Santa Fe state district court.
The suit cites Padilla for implementing the governor’s directive to dispatch some 10,000 letters seeking proof of residency from New Mexico licensed drivers presumed to be illegal immigrants.
Such licenses may be legally obtained by foreign nationals in New Mexico under a state law passed in 2003.
Martinez doesn’t like that law and promised to have it repealed during her campaign last year.
She failed in that effort at the 2011 Legislature, but is again seeking repeal at the special redistricting session underway at the Roundhouse.
Meanwhile, fearful lest illegals from other states slip into New Mexico and get themselves licensed, the governor has been trawling for the scofflaws by requiring recipients of Padilla’s letters to show up in Albuquerque or Las Cruces with proof of their residency in this enchanted land.
The suit was filed last week by a number of Democratic state lawmakers, along with perhaps the nation’s leading Latino civil rights group, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fun (MALDEF).
Shortly thereafter, District Judge Sarah Singleton ruled that Martinez’s proof of residency gambit cannot be implemented pending further court review.
One of the legislators pressing this case is Silver City Sen. Howie Morales, whose sister-in-law, Marisela Morales, has been a legal resident of New Mexico for a decade and a-half.
Nonetheless, she is one of thousands who received a letter directing her to validate her claim to a driver’s license by proving her New Mexico residency. Not surprisingly, Ms. Morales is among the petitioners in this case.
The basic charge against the Martinez administration here is that in casting its net for foreign nationals who have improperly acquired state drivers’ licenses, the governor has acted beyond her authority by singling “out a specific class of individuals for an onerous and wasteful exercise of state resources.”
“This case is about an abuse of power,” said a MALDEF lawyer, a contention Judge Singleton will almost certainly weigh in reviewing this case.
Meanwhile, there lurks a disquieting impression that, having failed thus far to vindicate her campaign promise to revoke the law authorizing drivers’ licenses for foreign nationals, Martinez has arbitrarily opted to harass the recipients of those licenses.
It seems quite gratuitous, Martinez’s residency verification venture.
Certainly there is nothing in the 2003 law permitting drivers’ licenses for foreign nationals in New Mexico that authorizes this or any governor to undertake such a program.
Nor did the 2011 Legislature set aside funds to finance such an undertaking, even though Martinez admits having diverted almost $50,000 from the Motor Vehicle Division budget for that purpose, including the services of a 1-855 Foreign National Call Center.
Sen. Dede Feldman, an Albuquerque Democrat, is emphatic when asked about the matter:  “No,” she snaps. “We did not appropriate any money for her to conduct this kind of thing.”
Here we have what could be the crux of the matter for Judge Singleton: If the residency verification program isn’t authorized by state law, and if the legislature did not fund such a program, where does the governor get the authority to institute it?
Martinez’s spokesman Scott Darnell reacted to Judge Singleton’s temporary blocking of the program with a ho-hum statement that “it is fairly standard as the court examines the residency certification program.”
David Urias, one of the attorneys who filed the suit, thinks it indicates the judge takes the case seriously. Urias is closer to the mark.

Hal Rhodes
© New Mexico News Services 2011