THURS: N.M. Eliminates Police Immunity Amid National Protests Against Police Brutality, + More

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New Mexico Eliminates Police Immunity From Prosecution - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed civil rights reforms Wednesday that eliminate police immunity from prosecution in state courts, in response to protests and concerns about police brutality that have swept the nation.

Lujan Grisham signed the Democrat-sponsored bill amid the trial of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on murder charges in the May 25, 2020, death of George Floyd. Video of Floyd, losing consciousness while pinned to the pavement by police officers, triggered a national reckoning over racism and police brutality.

¨This is not an anti-police bill," Lujan Grisham said in a news release. "This bill does not endanger any first responder or public servant — so long as they conduct themselves professionally within the bounds of our constitution and with a deep and active respect for the sacred rights it guarantees all of us."

The Democrat-sponsored legislation has implications for an array of state and local government agencies across New Mexico, from school districts to sheriffs' departments.

Liability for misconduct that violates individual rights will fall upon government agencies and not individual public employees — with damage awards capped at $2 million.

The bill was backed by an unusual coalition of advocates for policing reforms and social justice causes. They include the civic-minded founders of Ben & Jerry's ice cream and the conservative-backed nonprofit group Americans for Prosperity, supported by billionaire Charles Koch.

Local governments and law enforcement leaders lobbied aggressively against the legislation, dubbed the New Mexico Civil Rights Act. Civil rights complaints already can be brought in federal court, with unlimited awards for damages.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis last year enacted police accountability legislation that eliminated the qualified immunity defense that protects police from misconduct lawsuits, and similar measures are under consideration in several states.

Sponsors of the New Mexico legislation include state Sen. Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces and House speaker Brian Egolf of Santa Fe.

An unresolved ethics complaint by a former state judge accused Egolf of failing to disclose that his law firm handles civil rights litigation and allegedly stands to profit from the legislation to end police immunity. Egolf called the accusations frivolous and denied any violation of the state's Government Conduct Act.

The Legislature sidelined several other proposed policing reforms, including a bill aimed at greater independence in misconduct reviews by police licensing authorities.

An approved bill from Republican Sen. Stuart Ingle and Democratic Sen. George Muñoz of Gallup increases potential financial payouts to relatives of police officers who are killed in the line of duty to $400,000 from $250,000.

The bill, still awaiting the governor´s signature, would ensure some new training for police officers related to methods for de-escalating conflicts and interacting with people experiencing mental health problems.

New Law Makes It Easier For Elderly To Opt Out Of Jury Duty - Associated Press

New Mexico residents 75 and older can easily decline to participate in jury trials by calling a court office or using an online option, under legislation signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

The Administrative Office of the Courts announced Wednesday that excusals can be requested online through the state's jury website or by phoning a local court starting June 18. 

Previous law required a sworn, notarized statement. People 75 and older are still welcome to serve on juries.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Vigil says courts lobbied for the changes to improve efficiency and as a measure of convenience for seniors who currently may be concerned about COVID-19.

About 150,000 residents of New Mexico are eligible. Excusals can be requested after an individual has been summoned to jury duty.

The changes were sponsored by state Rep. Matthew McQueen of Galisteo and Sen. Liz Stefanics of Santa Fe, both Democrats.

New Mexico Leads Vaccine Rollout With 50% Getting 1st Shot - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

New Mexico health officials on Wednesday reported more progress in getting residents vaccinated as the state continues to lead the U.S. in the vaccine rollout.

State Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins said 50% of residents 16 and older have received their first shot and 31% are fully vaccinated. The latest figures come as other states look to expand distribution beyond health care workers and other priority groups to meet an April 19 deadline from the Biden administration.

While New Mexico opened up eligibility Monday, Collins said priority will still be given to those who are 75 and older and other senior citizens who have chronic conditions that put them at greater risk.

State officials also said more vaccine clinics are planned, including a dozen in southern New Mexico. They're also working with health care providers to target people who are home-bound, noting that about 1,000 doses have been administered so far to people in that group.

Despite the progress, the officials stressed that vaccinations along with continued public health restrictions such as mask-wearing will be important as COVID-19 variants emerge. They said the state's color-coded risk system for counties will likely remain in place at least through late May or early June depending on spread rates and daily case totals.

As of Wednesday, 10 of the state's 33 counties were classified as yellow, meaning there are more restrictions on commercial and day-to-day activities amid higher virus risk.

"I think we want to move in a general direction that takes everybody forward. I think the vaccine is the thing that's going to help us to do that, and I think that we just keep what we've got in place as a backstop in case in the unfortunate event that we would have to move back into it," said Dr. David Scrase, head of the New Mexico Department of Human Services.

The New Mexico National Guard is operating a vaccine distribution center in Albuquerque, which U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich toured Tuesday.

The distribution effort will benefit from funding included in the federal government's most recent pandemic relief package, specifically $20 billion that the New Mexico Democrat says will supercharge vaccine distributions nationwide.

The recovery package also included $50 billion for testing, genomic sequencing of variants and contact tracing.

New Mexico also will get nearly $7 million in grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That's on top of nearly $21 million previously awarded to the state Department of Health. The extra money is the result of the U.S. government waiving all cost-sharing requirements related to the federal disaster declaration that was issued last year.

Heinrich and fellow U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Lujan announced the additional funding Wednesday, noting that many communities have taken on unprecedented costs to ensure public health and safety.

"FEMA's cost-share requirements had kept New Mexico's state, local and tribal governments from receiving the full, federal support they needed," Heinrich said.

The New Mexico National Guard has completed more than 1,230 missions amid the pandemic and has logged more than 1.6 million miles along with the Civil Air Patrol. The Guard also has set up and helped staff more than 200 drive-thru testing sites around the state, collected over 300,000 specimens, vaccinated more than 35,000 people and delivered tons of food, water and protective gear to communities.

Over 1,020 Guard soldiers and air personnel have been involved in pandemic-related missions since March 2020, officials said.

Man Arrested In Shooting Death At New Mexico Train Station - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press/Report For America

A 22-year-old man has been arrested in a fatal shooting at a train station in Santa Fe, New Mexico. 

Police spokesperson Anthony Tapia says Matthew Arellano was taken into custody Tuesday near his home about 2 miles from the station.

Police say they're also looking for a person of interest in the case, 20-year-old Travis Whaler, who they say was near the scene of the shooting Tuesday and has a warrant for his arrest in an unrelated armed robbery case.

Authorities say the victim was 24-year-old David Hernandez and a 38-year-old also was hospitalized. 

Police say a witness near the station overheard a disagreement over the price of drugs before shots were fired.

The South Capitol Station parking lot is near office buildings that house state government agencies. Officials say none of those involved in the attack were on the train or known to have a connection to the agency offices.

Arellano did not have a lawyer listed for him ahead of an arraignment scheduled for Wednesday, court officials said.

Latter-Day Saints To Build New Church Temple In FarmingtonFarmington Daily Times, Associated Press

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has announced plans to build a new temple in Farmington, New Mexico making it the second temple in the state.

The Farmington Daily Times reports Church President Russell Nelson made the announcement Sunday that the new temple in Farmington will be one of 20 newly planned temples being built worldwide and one of nine in the U.S., including locations in Grand Junction, Colorado; Helena, Montana; and Yorba Linda, California.

The only other temple in New Mexico is in Albuquerque and was dedicated in March 2000 after being announced in 1997. A timeline for the new temples was not immediately announced.

Minnesota Off Hook For Buyout Of Pitino, Now At New Mexico - Associated Press

Minnesota does not owe a buyout payment to former basketball coach Richard Pitino for his dismissal, according to the separation agreement provided Wednesday by the university.

Pitino was fired March 15. He was hired at New Mexico the next day.

In the contract extension Pitino signed in 2019, he had a $1.75 million buyout for a dismissal prior to April 30, 2021, but payment was to cease once he found comparable employment. There was also a $500,000 early termination clause that Pitino would've been on the hook for if he pre-emptively departed for another job. Both of those fees were waived in the separation agreement. Pitino will be paid $125,000 for team academic performance bonuses.

Minnesota hired Ben Johnson to replace Pitino, who went 54-96 in Big Ten play over eight seasons.

Decision Strikes Key Parts Of Native American Adoptions Law - By Kevin Mcgill Associated Press

Parts of a federal law giving Native American families preference in the adoption of Native American children were effectively struck down Tuesday by a sharply divided federal appeals court, a defeat for tribal leaders who said the 1978 law was important to protecting their families and culture.

The complex ruling from 16 judges of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholds a lower court's finding that the Indian Child Welfare Act's preferences for Native American families or licensed "Indian foster homes" violate constitutional equal protection requirements.

It also said some of the provisions of the law "unconstitutionally commandeer" state officials' duties in adoption matters.

However, the full implications of the decision on adoptive children in this and future cases were not immediately clear. Some of the key points were the result of 8-8 votes. The lack of a majority meant the lower court's ruling prevailed on those points, but that no binding precedent was set by the appeals court.

Attorneys for both sides were reviewing the 325 pages late Tuesday. The case could wind up at the Supreme Court.

The 1978 law has long been championed by Native American leaders as a means of preserving Native American families and culture. In arguments last year, an Interior Department lawyer said Congress passed the law after finding that adoption standards at the state level were resulting in the breakup of American Indian families.

Opponents of the law include non-Native families who have tried to adopt American Indian children in emotional legal cases.

"Our clients brought this case to protect their families from being torn apart by a discriminatory federal law," Matthew D. McGill, lead attorney for the plaintiff families, said in an email. "We are very pleased that today's ruling has confirmed that ICWA's discriminatory placement preferences are unconstitutional."

Multiple couples seeking to adopt Native American children, a woman who wishes for her Native American biological child to be adopted by non-Natives, and the states of Texas, Louisiana, and Indiana were among the plaintiffs challenging the law.

The Tuesday evening ruling marked a reversal for the appeals court. A three-judge panel voted 2-1 to reverse the district court and uphold the law in 2019. But a majority of the 17-member court agreed to rehear the case. With one member recused, 16 judges heard arguments in the case last year.

The resulting decision included multiple partial dissents and partially concurring opinions. On some issues, a majority of the court agreed. On others, the court tied, meaning the original district court decision on the issue prevailed, although the appeals court ruling on the issues won't be considered precedential in future cases.

Navajo Nation Reports 16 More COVID-19 Cases, But No Deaths - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Wednesday reported 16 more confirmed COVID-19 cases, but no additional deaths. 

The latest figures bring the pandemic totals on the tribe's reservation, which includes parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, increased to 30,198 cases. 

The known death toll remains at 1,259. 

On Tuesday, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez announced the first confirmed case of the COVID-19 B.1.429 variant on the Navajo Nation, which came from a test sample obtained in the Chinle service unit area.  

The variant was first identified in the state of California and has since been detected across the southwest U.S.

Navajo Nation Finalizes Solar Plant Leases On Tribal Land - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation is moving forward with more two solar plants on the reservation. 

The projects are expected to generate millions of dollars in revenue for the tribe over their lifetimes. 

One is in Cameron, about an hour north of Flagstaff, and the other is in Utah near the Arizona border. 

The power from the plants largely will go to utility providers outside the reservation. Hundreds of people will be employed during the construction phase. 

Tribal President Jonathan Nez says the solar plants are part of a move toward renewable energy for a tribe that long has depended on energy from fossil fuels.

Oklahoma Opens COVID-19 Vaccinations To All StatesAssociated Press

Oklahoma will begin providing COVID-19 vaccinations to residents of any state because both the vaccine supply and the number of vaccinated Oklahomans have increased.

Deputy Health Commissioner Keith Reed said Wednesday that the state had reached a point where other states' residents may be vaccinated starting Thursday.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that Oklahoma has received more than 2.9 million vaccine doses and has administered more than 2.1 vaccinations. The state has about 4 million residents.

A portion of far northeast New Mexico borders Oklahoma.

Interior Secretary Steps Into Utah Public Lands Tug-Of-War - By Sophia Eppolito Associated Press/Report For America

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland will visit Utah this week before submitting a review on national monuments in the state. 

Residents there have both staunchly supported establishing and increasing the size of national monuments, and fiercely rallied against them. 

Haaland is the latest Interior secretary tasked with making recommendations on where the boundaries lie. 

Her input comes after President Donald Trump's administration decided to downsize two national monuments in southern Utah. 

She's Expected To Submit A Report To President Joe Biden After She Meets With Tribes And Elected Leaders At Bears Ears National Monument On Thursday.