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SAT: Civil Rights group pushes for the barring Cowboys for Trump cofounder from public office, NM Supreme Court dismisses COVID lawsuit for inmate, + More

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Associated Press, Morgan Lee
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NAACP supports removal of Cowboys for Trump cofounderBy Morgan Lee, Associated Press

The NAACP is supporting efforts to bar a New Mexico-based county commissioner from public office, alleging that the Cowboys for Trump cofounder has sought to disenfranchise voters -- including people of color -- and stoke insurrection.

The nation's oldest civil rights organization urged a state district court judge to remove and disqualify Otero County Commissioner Couy Griffin from holding future public office, noting Griffin's presence at the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection and his recent refusal to certify local results of New Mexico's June 7 primary election.

Written final arguments and judgement are pending after a two-day bench trial against Griffin, who has represented himself without legal counsel.

In a court filing Tuesday, the NAACP noted that Griffin attempted to draw comparisons between the Jan. 6 insurrection and the Black Lives Matter movement.

"Lawful protests and demonstrations in support of civil rights and the Black Lives Matter movement are fundamentally different from the insurrectionist conduct that occurred on Jan. 6," the NAACP said in its briefing.

The lawsuit's three plaintiffs argue that Griffin should be disqualified from holding public office on the basis of a clause in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that holds that anyone who has taken an oath to uphold the Constitution be barred from office for engaging in insurrection or rebellion or giving aid or comfort to the nation's enemies.

Griffin has invoked free speech guarantees in his defense and argues that removing him from office would cut against the will of the people and set a "dangerous precedent."

Elected in 2018, Griffin withstood a recall vote last year but isn't running for reelection or other office in November.

"If the plaintiffs prevail and a single judge subverts the will of the great people of Otero County, it will only be further proof of the tyranny we currently live under," Griffin said Friday in an email. "There was already a recall effort waged against me after Jan. 6. In that recall effort the people of Otero County spoke and the recall failed."

Griffin was convicted in federal court of a misdemeanor for entering Capitol grounds on Jan. 6, 2021, without going inside. He was sentenced to 14 days and given credit for time served.

The NAACP has also highlighted attempts by Griffin to invoke the plight of civil rights activists of the 1960s in his own defense. The NAACP briefing also denounces Griffin's prior criticism of those who support performances at football games of "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing, also known as the Black National Anthem.

In a July 2020 selfie video, Griffin suggested supporters of the Black National Anthem "go back to Africa and form your little football teams over in Africa and you can play on an old beat-out dirt lot."

Griffin has called his comments a poor choice words to express what he sees as a double standard that holds white people responsible for racist behavior.

"If there was a group of white people wanting to play a 'white national anthem' I would have had the same response to them," Griffin said Friday in response to the NAACP briefing. "And as a white person I'd be disgusted by that idea."

Griffin voted in June against certification of local primary election results based on a "gut feeling" without specific objections.

New Mexico Supreme Court dismisses inmates' COVID lawsuitAssociated Press

The New Mexico Supreme Court is upholding a lower court decision to dismiss a lawsuit that sought to release prison inmates because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The court issued its opinion Thursday in a 2020 case brought by several inmates, the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico. The plaintiffs claimed the state's COVID-19 response in prisons violated inmates' constitutional rights.

Aside from reducing the prison population, the lawsuit sought to require the state to safeguard the health of inmates.

The inmates and the advocacy groups had alleged that the state was refusing to enforce its own mandates for social distancing, heightened hygiene practices and quarantine measures. The complaint suggested that prison conditions had "become so intolerable as to constitute cruel and unusual punishment."

The Supreme Court agreed with the lower court that none of the inmates named in the lawsuit had filed grievances with the Corrections Department over the conditions and therefore did not exhaust administrative remedies before going to court.

The court also directed one of its rules committees to submit recommendations for rules of criminal procedure to govern class actions by inmates bringing certain petitions to challenge the conditions of their confinement. That's because habeas corpus petitions currently are not governed by the procedural rules for class actions in civil cases.

Afghan refugee enters not guilty plea in Muslim slayingsBy Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

A lawyer for an Afghan refugee accused in the Albuquerque slayings of three Muslim entered a not guilty plea Friday on her client's behalf as the community continues its struggle to understand the motives behind the killings.

Muhammad Syed, 51, appeared remotely for the court hearing and will remain held without bond pending trial. He is charged with three counts of murder and tampering with evidence, and police have identified him as the suspect in the killing of a fourth Muslim man.

Syed, who has been in the U.S. with his family for several years, previously denied involvement in the killings when authorities detained him earlier this month.

Authorities have not disclosed a motive for the killings, but prosecutors have described Syed as having a violent history. His public defenders have argued that previous allegations of domestic violence against Syed never resulted in convictions.

Authorities have said they have linked bullet casings found at two of the crime scenes with casings found in Syed's vehicle and with guns found at his home and in his vehicle.

Syed was arrested Aug. 8 more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) from his Albuquerque home after tips led investigators to the Syed family. He told authorities he was on his way to Texas to find a new home for his family, saying he was concerned about the ambush-style killings.

Syed has been charged with these killings:

— Aftab Hussein, 41, was slain July 26 after parking his car in his usual spot near his home.

— Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, a 27-year-old urban planner who had worked on the campaign of a New Mexico congresswoman, was gunned down Aug. 1 while taking his evening walk.

— Naeem Hussain was shot Aug. 5 as he sat in his vehicle outside a refugee resettlement agency on the city's south side following funeral services for two of the other shooting victims. Shots were fired at Hussain's SUV, striking him in the head and the arm.

Syed is the primary suspect — but hasn't been charged — in last November's slaying of Muhammad Zahir Ahmadi, a 62-year-old Afghan immigrant who was fatally shot in the head behind the market he owned.

Muhammad Imtiaz Hussain, the older brother of Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, said in an interview Friday that his family is heartbroken and frustrated because they have no idea why the young man from Pakistan would have been targeted or how he would have crossed paths with Syed.

The two men were from different Islamic backgrounds. Syed speaks Pashto and no English. Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, who was the son of an elementary school teacher, studied law and human resource management at the University of Punjab before coming to the U.S. in 2017.

"These questions are rattling in my mind," the victim's brother said. "If you punish him (Syed) for 10 years, 20, 30, 1,000 or a million years, how would I satisfy myself if I don't know why he killed my brother? What happened to him? For me, for justice, we need to know why."

Muhammad Afzaal Hussain was working as the city of Española's planning and land use director after receiving a master's degree from the University of New Mexico. During his time at UNM, he became a student leader and an advocate for the international community.

His colleagues and those in political circles described him as having a bright future. His brother said his ultimate goal was to open a school in their hometown in Pakistan so other children could be afforded a quality education.

Muhammad Imtiaz Hussain said that mission will continue.

"My brother died but we will aim to make more brothers and sisters like him who can inspire people, who work for the benefit of humanity, who help others, who raise their voice for others," he said.

Judge: Cannon Air Force Base is subject to NM’s hazardous waste lawsMegan Gleason

A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit by Cannon Air Force Base last week that challenged demands for the base to clean up PFAS contamination in New Mexico. The case was dismissed without prejudice and can still be heard in state court, according to the ruling.

Spreading pollution is threatening groundwater sources in and around the city of Clovis.

The state’s Environment Department has been grappling with PFAS contamination coming from Cannon for four years, NMED Secretary James Kenney explained to the Legislature’s Water and Natural Resources Committee on Thursday. It’s still spreading, he said, and NMED is working to keep track of it.

Meanwhile, the Department of Defense and the U.S. Air Force pushed back on remediation mandates in court, trying to get out of state-mandated cleanup.

“The Department of Defense is waging a groundwater war against the state of New Mexico, and they’ve been doing it since 2019,” Kenney said. “Caught in the middle of that groundwater war is the community of Clovis, as well as other communities around the state.”

In December 2018, the state’s Environment Department demanded that Cannon take corrective actions after the state was informed of PFAS contamination. But the Air Force and Department of Defense challenged NMED in federal court the following month, arguing that New Mexico’s demands don’t adhere to hazardous waste definitions and rules outlined in state and federal acts.

A judge ruled that Cannon is subject to the state’s hazardous waste laws on Aug. 18 and that the federal court didn’t have jurisdiction over the case.

Bill Grantham, assistant attorney general in the Consumer and Environmental Protection Division, said on Thursday that this decision works in the state’s favor.

“It would be better if we weren’t involved in litigation, but it’s good for us that we’re starting to see the tide turn,” he said.

NMED is waiting to see if the Department of Defense and Air Force will keep pursuing the case in New Mexico’s Court of Appeals, Grantham said.

Separately, another lawsuit is ongoing, filed in 2019 by NMED and state Attorney General Hector Balderas against both Cannon and Holloman Air Force Bases. It calls for cleanup, saying there is imminent, substantial danger at and around the two bases because of their PFAS contamination.

Regardless, Cannon officials are also attempting to modify the permit that allows the base to discharge waste into water sources through the N.M Water Quality Control Commission. The base filed a petition in early 2021 to waive some state contaminant testing requirements, including for PFAS, since it follows federal regulations anyway.

People near Clovis are frustrated that Cannon isn’t holding more public forums to talk about the issue. Art Schaap is a fourth-generation dairy farmer who had to euthanize 3,600 cows contaminated with PFAS, which put him out of business. He questioned at the legislative hearing what Cannon is hiding.

“They claim to guard our community and state, but neighbors don’t run over each other,” he said.

Kenney said Cannon has failed to be transparent, referencing a $16.6 million effort to investigate PFAS and begin cleanup. After they wouldn’t share details with NMED, he said, the state got more info this week through a Freedom of Information Act request.

So far, it looks like there’s no attempt to repair damage beyond the base, he added.

Schaap said that money should go directly to the state instead to ensure remediation really happens.

NMED has been mapping the contamination spread since November 2021, Kenney said. The department wants to remove the chemicals from water and store the contaminants until they can figure out how to destroy them. Nobody’s sure how to destroy the chemicals yet, but Kenney said NMED is digging through new information on the subject.

“This is not just a matter of our groundwater and our national resources,” Kenney said. “This is a matter of our economy and the future of Clovis.”