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Lawyers spar over high-profile New Mexico pollution case

WildEarth Guardians

A judge heard arguments on Friday on whether a high-profile environmental lawsuit brought on by the Center of Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians and several frontline Native American communities should go to trial.

The state of New Mexico hopes to dismiss allegations that state leadership is violating the constitutional rights of its citizens by failing to curb oil and gas pollution.

The 4-hour hearing pitted lawyers from both sides to debate the merits of the case centered around the state’s pollution control clause before 1st Judicial District Judge Matthew Wilson.

Defendants argued that the claims being made against the state go in direct contrast to the law.

Attorney Thomas Hnasko represents the state legislature. He argued that the court does not have the power to question policy decisions and the wisdom of a governing body.

“We cannot command the legislature to legislate,” Hnasko said. “I mean, practically speaking, what would that look like? What would that look like with the various legislators in that body? It’s like herding cats over there.”

While the court cannot tell politicians what to do, they can issue a declaratory judgment that seeks to balance interests between the parties involved.

The complaint asks for a complete reform of the regulations that govern the oil and gas industry, including a halt on drilling permits.

Hnasko, among other parties to the case, called for the entire complaint to be dismissed.

Gail Evans of the Center for Biological Diversity is the lead attorney for the plaintiffs. She was also the driving force behind the infamous Yazzie/Martinez case, which found the state failed to provide a sufficient and uniform system of education to all New Mexican children.

“The way that the state has permitted oil and gas production and pollution has harmed plaintiff’s rights to life, liberty, property, safety and happiness,” Evans said.

This challenge comes as the U.S. government and various states grapple with similar constitutionality cases, mostly brought by coalitions of young people.

In the District of Oregon last December, a Federal judge denied the U.S. government’s motion to dismiss a case brought by young climate activists claiming that the government’s reliance on fossil fuels violates their right to a stable climate.

Judge Wilson hasn’t made a final ruling yet, which may come down in the coming days or weeks.

Bryce Dix is our local host for NPR's Morning Edition.
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