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WED: New Mexico Senate allows immigration detention to continue, + More

FILE - The Torrance County Detention Facility is shown Nov. 11, 2000, in Estancia, N.M. A government watchdog has found unsanitary and unsafe conditions at the New Mexico jail used to hold migrants and says it should be immediately closed. The Department of Homeland Security Inspector General said in a report released Friday, March 18, 2022, that there are security lapses throughout the Torrance County Detention Facility and said all detainees should be immediately removed. (AP Photo/Matt York, File)
Matt York
The Torrance County Detention Facility is shown Nov. 11, 2000, in Estancia, N.M.

New Mexico Senate allows immigration detention to continue - By Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico

Democratic state senators joined Republicans on Tuesday to reject legislation that would have barred local governments from hiring federal immigration police to detain individuals for civil violations of federal immigration law.

In an 18-20 vote on Tuesday afternoon, the New Mexico Senate voted not to pass Senate Bill 172, which would have prohibited local governments from entering or renewing contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain people seeking asylum in the United States.

Since the bill failed to pass the Senate, it cannot be considered by the House of Representatives this session.

The three facilities that detain people with immigrant status in New Mexico are located in Cibola, Otero and Torrance Counties. No other local governments in the state contract with ICE to incarcerate immigrants while they await their day in court.

Opponents in the Senate on Tuesday tried to portray asylum-seekers as criminals and argued that the bill, if passed, would have faced legal challenges and would have harmed the local economies where the prisons are located.

The detention of asylum-seekers under immigration law is completely discretionary, said Sophia Genovese, a senior attorney with the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center and an expert on the bill. She said this means that people can be released at any time because they do not pose a risk to public safety.

Sen. Ron Griggs (R-Alamogordo) said the bill would violate the U.S. Constitution and the Legislature would face legal action if it approved the measure.

Sen. William Burt (R-Alamogordo) pointed to analysis by the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office that says a similar law in California was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Griggs, Burt and Muñoz represent counties with ICE detention facilities. They each voted against the bill.

Part of the U.S. Constitution “precludes states from dictating to the federal government who can perform federal work,” the AG’s office wrote.

Sen. Antonio Maestas (D-Albuquerque) argued on the Senate floor that the California law tried to ban private prisons in general, but this bill would specifically ban Intergovernmental Support Agreements with ICE for the purpose of detaining immigrants.

“That portion of California’s law was actually upheld,” Maestas said.

Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino (D-Albuquerque), a sponsor of the bill, on Tuesday told senators about the hazardous conditions at the Torrance County Detention Facility in Estancia documented by the federal Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General, including lack of basic medical care, severe understaffing and cells that routinely flood with human excrement.

“We found many of them being detained in local facilities are being detained under conditions that are far from adequate,” Ortiz y Pino said. “People who visited them and talked to them have found them seriously lacking in nutrition and health care. There have been incidents where they’ve attempted suicide.”

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in January told U.S. Department of Homeland Security Cabinet Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas that what’s happening at Torrance County Detention Center in New Mexico needs to improve, particularly if the federal government wants the state to keep licensing those facilities.

People held in the immigration facilities also face deteriorating infrastructure, a rat infestation at the Cibola County facility, bug infestations in Torrance County, inedible food, racism and xenophobia by guards, willful disregard for their medical and mental health care, Genovese told a panel of senators earlier in March.

“No amount of oversight has remedied these problems,” she said.

New Mexico enacts law to keep guns away from children - Associated Press

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a bill Tuesday that makes it a crime to store firearms in places that children could access.

The new law takes effect on June 16. Earlier this year, a 6-year-old student in Virginia shot his teacher, which added to debates across the country about gun control and school safety.

The New Mexico bill would make it a crime to store a firearm in a way that negligently disregards the ability of a child or teenager under age 18 to access it.

Criminal charges could be brought only if the minor later brandishes or displays the firearm in a threatening way, or uses it to kill or injure someone. The proposal would establish both misdemeanor and felony crimes, with penalties of up to 18 months in prison.

Criminal provisions do not apply if a child accesses a gun with authorization of a parent or guardian for lawful purposes including hunting and recreation. The law also includes exceptions when a child accesses a gun for self-defense or to defend others.

Sponsors of the initiative hope it will reduce gun-related deaths and injuries among youths. New Mexico is among the top 10 states for firearms deaths per capita.

This story has been updated to reflect that the bill was signed on Tuesday.

Special prosecutor steps down in case against Alec Baldwin - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

A special prosecutor who doubles as a state legislator is stepping down from her role in the manslaughter case against actor Alec Baldwin in the death of a cinematographer on a New Mexico film set.

Baldwin's legal team in February sought to disqualify special prosecutor and Republican state Rep. Andrea Reeb based on constitutional provisions that safeguard the separation of powers between distinct branches of government.

Reeb said in a statement Tuesday that she "will not allow questions about my serving as a legislator and prosecutor to cloud the real issue at hand."

"It has become clear that the best way I can ensure justice is served in this case is to step down so that the prosecution can focus on the evidence and the facts," Reeb said.

District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies filed a notification in state district court and declined further comment.

Baldwin and weapons supervisor Hannah Gutierrez-Reed have pleaded not guilty to charges of involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins. The charges carry a maximum penalty of 18 months in prison and fines.

Hutchins died shortly after being wounded Oct. 21, 2021, during rehearsals for the Western film "Rust" at a ranch on the outskirts of Santa Fe. Baldwin was pointing a pistol at Hutchins when the gun went off, killing her and wounding the director, Joel Souza.

A preliminary hearing is scheduled in May to decide whether the evidence is sufficient to proceed to a trial.

Prosecutors say assistant director David Halls, who oversaw safety on set, has signed an agreement to plead guilty in the negligent use of a deadly weapon.

In her role as legislator, Reeb has sponsored several criminal justice initiatives, including enhanced punishments for firearms violations.

The Republican from Clovis steered clear of voting on public spending to prosecute Baldwin and Gutierrez-Reed.

She was excused from a House floor vote in February on a proposed state budget that includes $360,000 for special prosecution expenses in the fatal film-set shooting.

Legislation to give low-income New Mexicans cheaper utility rates passes Senate - By Megan Gleason, Source New Mexico

People with low incomes could have cheaper utility bills if legislation that senators approved on Tuesday can make it through the Roundhouse in four days.

After discussions on Monday and Tuesday, the Senate passed the Low-Income Solar Act, Senate Bill 432, by a vote of 25-11. All the votes against the legislation were from Republican lawmakers, though Sen. Gay Kernan (R-Hobbs) voted for its passage.

The bill has to pass the House by Saturday at noon, which is when this year’s legislative session ends. If representatives approve any changes to the legislation, it has to go back to the Senate again for concurrence.

Senate Bill 432 proposes that investor-owned utilities, like PNM, give bill credits to rental residents of low-income multi-unit housing — like apartments, townhouses or duplexes — that primarily use renewable energy for electricity generation.

These could be units that help low-income New Mexicans, unhoused Native Americans or victims of violence, like domestic abuse or sexual assault, according to language in the bill.

Federal tax credits will be the incentive to get property owners on board. Based on the proposal, that could include a private landowner, or property operated by tribal, state or federal entities.

The Inflation Reduction Act allows up to 30% off of solar installation costs in the form of tax credits and another 20% if the project is for a low-income residential building. So whoever owns the property and pays for or installs a solar system would get the federal tax credits, and their residents would get utility bill credits.

“Should this bill pass, that gives us access to that money so that those folks who are in affordable housing — designated affordable housing — can have the opportunity to reduce their utility costs,” bill sponsor Sen. Carrie Hamblen (D-Las Cruces) said.

The Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department said this legislation makes renewable energy more accessible throughout the state and described this as “community solar on a smaller scale.”

“For many years putting solar on our homes was for those who could afford it,” Hamblen said.

The savings would be dependent on the property owner choosing to install solar systems on low-incoming housing units. Sen. David Gallegos (R-Eunice), who voted against the bill’s passage, asked a question that pointed this out, and Hamblen said he’s right.

“Although we still have a way to go, we are starting that process by using federal monies to reduce the costs of a solar system in half so that those who need help reducing their utility cost have that opportunity,” Hamblen said.

The amount of bill credits tenants get have to be equal between all people living in the space, since the legislation specifies that this can only apply for housing with multiple people, like apartments. Sen. George Muñoz (D-Gallup) questioned how equitable that really is.

He brought up a hypothetical scenario where one tenant’s average utility bill is $1,000, another’s is $2,000 and someone else’s is $5,000. He asked if those people all still have the same utility savings.

Hamblen said yes.

She said the federal rules are strict on this front, but there will still be savings through any federal money that arrives.

“I understand the question about if somebody is using a little bit more electricity than another person. However, that is beyond our control because of those federal monies and the guidelines in those federal monies,” Hamblen said. “However, they all still do get a reduction in their utility costs.”

Muñoz recused himself from the vote following this answer.

Electric cooperatives, like rural city-owned utilities, wouldn’t have to adhere to this legislation. Most New Mexicans get their energy from investor-owned utilities, like the Public Service Company of New Mexico.

A metering system would determine how much the electricity bill credits are for tenants. Unused credits could be carried forward, according to the legislation.

Utility companies would have to install metering systems, and the bill specifies that companies like PNM can’t charge people for “reasonable costs” for installations or upgrades, or charge them any other fees for participating in this credit program that other customers don’t have to pay.

It would be up to the state’s Public Regulation Commission to enforce all these credit rules, which would have to go into effect by Jan. 1, 2024 if the legislation passes. However, in the bill’s fiscal impact report, the PRC said that the agency would need at least a year to prepare to enforce the rules.

Republican senators repeatedly asked how this bill would benefit the building owner. The PRC also questioned that in the report. Hamblen said in addition to solar system costs being cut in half, the longevity of utility rates would be lower.

She said this needs to happen while the state can use these federal tax credits. The credits go through until 2034, though the amount starts to decline after 2032.

“This is not something that is long term,” Hamblen said. “This is something that we really want to take advantage of now.”

Sharp drop in illegal border crossings continues in February - By Rebecca Santana Associated Press

A sharp drop in illegal border crossings along the Southwest border that started in January after the Biden administration announced stricter immigration measures continued into February, the administration announced Wednesday.

The data released by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection paints a picture of who is attempting to enter the country at a time of intense political controversy with Republicans seeing immigration as a potent issue with voters and accusing President Biden and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas of not doing enough to secure the southern border.

U.S. Border Patrol officials encountered migrants 128,877 times trying to cross the border in February between the legal border crossings. That's about the same as January's number — 128,913 — and is the lowest number of encounters per month since February 2021, the agency said.

The numbers of encounters doesn't necessarily equate to individual people since some migrants try repeatedly to cross the border. The agency said about 25% of those encountered in February were repeat encounters meaning that at some time during the last 12 months they'd been detained by U.S. officials as they tried to enter the country.

In comparison, U.S. officials stopped migrants 221,693 times between the ports of entry along the Mexican border in December.

Then in early January the administration announced a new policy in which Mexico would take back Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans under a pandemic-era rule that denies migrants the right to seek asylum as part of an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The number of migrants intercepted from those four countries plunged after the new policy went into effect and remained low during February.

At the same time they announced the new policy, the U.S. also agreed to admit up to 30,000 people a month from those four nations on a process called humanitarian parole if they applied online, entered at an airport and found a financial sponsor. According to the CBP figures, 22,755 Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans were paroled into the country through that process in February. Humanitarian parole differs from other immigration pathways in large part because it's temporary — often only for a year or two — and doesn't provide a long-term pathway to live in the U.S.

The administration has also proposed generally denying asylum to anyone who travels though another country on their way to the U.S. without seeking protection there — effectively all non-Mexicans who appear at the U.S. southern border. That proposal, which has met with stiff criticism from immigration rights advocates, is currently in a 30-day comment period before it is expected to go into effect when Title 42 expires in May.

According to the CBP report, drug seizures were also up 6% in February compared to January. Fentanyl seizures specifically were up 58%.

Bill to revise NM malpractice law to get rushed in session’s final days — Albuquerque Journal, KUNM News

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Senate leadership announced Tuesday that a bipartisan compromise has been reached to amend the state’s medical malpractice law, allowing independent clinics to stay insured and available for New Mexico patients.

The Albuquerque Journal reports a 2021 policy set to go into effect next year would cap damages for malpractice suits at $5 million. An emergency bill backed by the governor would lower that to $1 million tied to inflation.

At issue is clinics encountering barriers to securing insurance for lawsuits with such a high limit on damages in place.

Senate leadership and the governor negotiated with doctors and patient advocates to reach the middle ground that all parties say is a workable solution.

Doctors had demonstrated at the Roundhouse calling for the change after proposals they supported failed to pass. Dan Weaks with the New Mexico Hospital Association spoke in favor of the emergency legislation as it was quickly heard in the Senate tax committee Tuesday afternoon.

“Appreciate the efforts of the committee, I hope it passes quickly,” he said. “We need to get our doctors back — they’ve all been up here.”

It passed out of committee unanimously. It now needs approval of the full Senate and then the House if it’s to pass by the time the Legislature adjourns midday Saturday.

Committee tables Paid Family and Medical Leave bill, likely ending bill’s hopes this yearSusan Dunlap, New Mexico Political Report

A House committee tabled a bill that would provide paid family and medical leave to workers statewide by a vote of 6-4 in the final week of the session, likely ending its ability to pass this Legislative session

The vote to table the Paid Family and Medical Leave Act was bipartisan, with some Democrats voting alongside Republicans to table the bill.

SB 11, sponsored by Senate Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, would have appropriated $36.5 million from the general fund to establish a program which would have allowed workers to take up to 12 weeks of paid leave from work for a new child or a serious medical condition. The opposition’s primary concern was that it would be too much of a burden on small business owners. There were also questions about the program’s ability to remain solvent.

The bill’s Fiscal Impact Report states that the fund administered by the state would become insolvent by 2028. The bill sponsors and bill experts have maintained that the FIR relied on incorrect data and that the fund would not only remain solvent but within six years of its initiation would be able to pay back the general fund the $36.5 million the bill appropriated to start up the program.

The University of New Mexico Bureau of Business and Economic Research, which studied the program, estimated that 35,126 yearly claims would likely be made while the LFC estimated the yearly claims would be 87,125. The larger number of claims constitutes the difference in why the FIR found that the fund would not be solvent by 2028.

Serrato said “we’ve seen it succeed in other states.”

There are 11 other states that have implemented a similar program.

State Rep. Marion Matthews, D-Albuquerque, who voted to table the bill, called the program an “unfunded mandate” on childcare workers and nonprofits who have contracts with the state.

State Rep. Linda Serrato, D-Santa Fe, who presented the bill, said the Legislature is passing a bill that will decrease Gross Receipts Tax for early childcare facilities and that the reduction in GRT would offset the costs this program would incur those businesses.

Matthews also had concerns about public schools and firefighters, which have employee ratio mandates.

Stewart said those employees are getting sick now and the employers are “dealing with it.”

The bill underwent a three-hour debate on Friday that ended with Serrato agreeing to amend the bill over the weekend and present it again the next time the committee met. Matthews spoke at length at the previous committee hearing about the bill, criticizing it by saying small business owners are “workers as much as anybody,” and also questioning the solvency of the fund the Department of Workforce Solution would be administering.

But when Serrato presented the amended bill on Monday, state Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, said, as she listed the new amendments, “this does not meet what my expectation was.” Lundstrom also voted to table the bill.

The amendments defined terms such as “medical provider” and also tried to address questions about the fund’s solvency by capping how much the Department of Workforce Solutions could raise the contributions.

Matthews said she was a part of the negotiations over the weekend to amend the bill but she said the bill sponsors rejected some of the efforts to amend the bill further.

“For ages, businesses have worked it out. We heard testimony from small businesses working with their employees on issues, not because of law, but out of respect and support for one another,” she said.

Stewart said this bill would enable all business owners the ability to provide paid time off, not just the business owners who can afford to do so.

Affirmative Consent bill stalled in Senate Committee - By Megan Taros, Source New Mexico

More than 30 students – mostly from Capital High School in Santa Fe – flooded the mailboxes of the Senate Judiciary Committee as part of an action with Girls Inc. of Santa Fe last week with pleas that the committee schedule a hearing for HB 43, which would set affirmative consent as a standard for teaching consent in public schools.

Proponents of the bill said the letters were “heartbreaking,” and showed a need for adults to step up and take action to protect young people from sexual violence.

“We’ve seen students who’ve been supporting this bill since 2019 when they were freshman and they’re now seniors,” said Alexandria Taylor, executive director of New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs. “So we have a whole class of students who will not receive this education.”

The bill appears to be stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee, its final hurdle before a senate floor vote. The bill’s last hearing was almost a month ago when the Senate Education Committee unanimously approved the bill.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Joseph Cervantes (D-Las Cruces) was not available in his office multiple times and did not respond to a message from Source New Mexico left at his office.

Rep. Liz Thomson (D-Albuquerque) implored the committee to schedule the bill to give it a chance at a floor vote. Thomson condemned misinformation posted online against the bill, including the falsehood that the legislation would condemn anyone for physical contact with each other if there was no proof of affirmative consent.

She said some criticism was “too ridiculous to even repeat,” and reiterated that the bill was preventative, not punitive.

“All we want is for everyone to know that only yes means yes,” Thomson said. “No more, ‘Oh, she was passed out so she didn’t say no.’ We want youth, and by extension all of us, to understand that you don’t owe anyone anything.”

The bill was first introduced in the Roundhouse in 2019 and hit several roadblocks, including dying on the senate floor in 2019. Last year, it was ruled not germain for a 30-day session.

Advocates pointed out that the bill has previously passed the Senate Judiciary Committee and had strong support in each committee this year. Thomson and supporters of the bill said the public’s support for the bill has only grown since its introduction.

Jess Clark, director of sexual violence prevention for the New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, said young people have been the primary supporters of the bill and have made it clear that affirmative consent is needed in schools to keep them safe.

This year and last year students marched on the Roundhouse to urge lawmakers to pass the bill.

In a video posted to the Girls Inc. of Santa Fe Facebook page on March 7, students encouraged the passage of the affirmative consent bill because they believe it is important to know that they have the right to control who they want to touch their bodies. A banner across the video encouraged viewers to “imagine a world without sexual violence.”

Clark said the bill not passing is a signal to youth that adults are failing them.

“These conversations are happening in really fantastic ways from young people who can envision a safer world than even the one we grew up in,” he said. “This is young people saying, ‘This is what I need to be safe.’ And some of them never got it because we didn’t listen to them.”

Thomson said she remains optimistic. Along with advocates, she’s emphasized the importance of passing the bill to bring meaningful change to young people.

Taylor said it makes her emotional to think the bill would have to wait another two years to get passed when it could be in place and change the lives of students.

“Legislation is only meaningful when people can feel it in their lives,” she said.

N.M. Legislature passes Second Chance Bill - By Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico

Whether or not New Mexicans serving long adult sentences in prison for crimes they committed as children will get a chance at regaining their freedom will depend on the state’s governor.

The New Mexico House of Representatives passed the Second Chance Bill, sending it to the desk of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

The House voted 34-25 after three hours of debate extending from Sunday night into Monday morning.

House Majority Floor Leader Rep. Gail Chasey told lawmakers the bill would bring New Mexico in line with best practices used nationwide, constitutional standards, and in line with what every person — especially parents — know: “children are works in progress.”

“We need sentencing laws that leave room for their potential to experience positive transformations,” said Chasey (D-Albuquerque), who sponsored the bill along with Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez (D-Albuquerque).

ProPublica reports the governor “has indicated that she will likely sign the legislation, if it is passed, by early April.”

However, Maddy Hayden, a spokesperson for the governor, said on Monday evening that she is “still evaluating” Senate Bill 64.

“It is critical that the right balance is struck between the rights of victims and their families and the chance for youthful violent offenders to be rehabilitated,” Hayden said. “To that end, we continue to have conversations with victims and their advocates as well as criminal justice advocates, which have been ongoing since last year.”

Chasey said the bill’s sponsors worked during the interim to “address concerns of diverse stakeholders,” and made bipartisan modifications to the bill to address the concerns of victims and victim’s rights advocates. That’s why it has a tiered sentencing review system, which reflects an effort to account for heightened consequences in extreme cases, she said.

The vote in the House means second chances for loved ones who have grown up in prison is now in sight, the New Mexico Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Youth said in a written statement on Monday afternoon.

The Coalition has worked with national advocacy groups including the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth and Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

FAMM Vice President of Policy Molly Gill on Monday morning applauded the House and Senate for passing the bill and urged Lujan Grisham to sign it into law.

“New Mexico isn’t just the Land of Enchantment. It’s the Land of Second Chances,” Gill said. “The days of New Mexico locking up young people and throwing away the key need to end. New Mexicans can change, and this law will create the opportunity for a second chance when they do.”

Senate approves plan to create state civil rights office - By Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico

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.

Abortion pill access case: Judge wants 'less advertisement' - By Sean Murphy And Jake Bleiberg Associated Press

A federal judge overseeing a high-stakes case that could threaten access to medication abortion across the nation asked lawyers for the "courtesy" of not publicizing upcoming arguments, according to a court record released Tuesday that reveals new details of a move experts say is outside the norm for the U.S. judicial system.

U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk — who was appointed by former President Donald Trump and is known for conservative views — told attorneys during a status conference by telephone on Friday that because the case has prompted death threats and protests, "less advertisement of this hearing is better," according to a transcript of the meeting.

"And because of limited security resources and staffing, I will ask that the parties avoid further publicizing the date of the hearing," Kacsmaryk said, according to the transcript. "This is not a gag order but just a request for courtesy given the death threats and harassing phone calls and voicemails that this division has received."

Kacsmaryk did not specify who made threats.

"We want a fluid hearing with all parties being heard. I think less advertisement of this hearing is better," the judge said in asking lawyers not to tweet about the hearing so that the court could avoid "any unnecessary circus-like atmosphere of what should be more of an appellate-style proceeding."

The judge said he planned to issue an order setting the hearing late on Tuesday, one day before the hearing in Amarillo, a Texas Panhandle community that has few direct flights and is more than four hours drive from the nearest major city. Kacsmaryk ultimately issued the order Monday, after The Washington Post reported on his attempt to keep the hearing under wraps.

Protests are now planned in Amarillo Wednesday, with the Women's March advocacy group urging people to rally outside the federal courthouse wearing judge and kangaroo costumes to decry Kacsmaryk.

Terry Maroney, a professor at Vanderbilt University Law School who studies federal judges, said they often have security concerns in high-profile cases, but Kacsmaryk's handling of such worries was unusual.

"I have not heard of anybody doing this," Maroney said of Kacsmaryk seeking to delay public notice of the hearing. "It does strike me as unusual and not proper."

Maroney said that while Kacsmaryk noted his request to avoid publicity was not an order, most lawyers would nonetheless be inclined to obey when a judge frames a request as a matter of safety. "It functionally operates as a gag order," she said.

University of Oklahoma law professor Joseph Thai called it "deeply concerning" for a federal judge to try to keep the public in the dark.

"The fact that the Trump-appointed judge is deciding a highly political question, potentially denying millions of women across the country a safe and effective abortion pill, makes it all the more critical to ensure public notice and access to the hearing at which their rights will—or will not—be heard," Thai said. "Nothing less than the legitimacy of the judicial branch is at stake."

The closely watched lawsuit is challenging the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's more than 20-year approval of the drug mifepristone, one of two drugs used in medication abortions which account for more than half of the abortions in the U.S.

The suit was filed by a group that helped challenge Roe v. Wade, which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down last year, stripping away women's constitutional protections for abortion.

Impacts of a ruling against the FDA could take years to play out. It could affect states regardless of whether abortion is legal there.

Arthur Hellman, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, said that if Kacsmaryk had issued a gag order the lawyers could have appealed it but there was no avenue for judicial review of his requesting their silence "as a courtesy." "It gives rise to the appearance that he's trying to keep the hearing, somehow, secret," said Hellman. "It just looks bad."