Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Protecting the Judges

When New Mexican police reporter Geoff Grammer told me he'd heard about a bill that would have made threatening judges a felony had been introduced but had died in the Legislature, my first reaction was skepticism.

Geoff, of course, was working on the story of the Chimayo man arrested on charges -- misdemeanor charges -- of threatening the life of state Dsitrict Judge Michael Vigil. (His story in today's paper is HERE.)

This is the kind of apple-pie bill the Legislature usually loves, I told him. When lawmakers can't agree on anything else, both sides of the aisle usually are happy to slap heavier penalties on people found guilty of despicable crimes.

But what I learned was there were not one, but two bills introduced in the 2009 Legislature by lawmakers from opposite ends of the political spectrum, Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe and Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque.

They weren't mirror bills. Rehm's had tougher penalties. But both were introduced early in the session, and, according to committee votes, both had bi-partisan support.

Rehm managed to get his bill through the House, but it went nowhere. Wirth's bill made it through the Senate Public Affairs Committee, where it passed unanimously. But it was tabled in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Committee votes aren't recorded for tabling actions, but Wirth told me the vote was close. Perhaps a one-vote margin, he said.

Why was this defeated? Rehm said some opponents said such a law would be used infrequently. Wirth said some of the opponents of his measure were worried about tougher laws leading to more prison overcrowding. These two objections would seem to contradict each other. Someone in the Senate apparently just doesn't like this idea.

Both lawmakers say they will try again next year. And state Supreme Court Justice Ed Chavez, who testified for the bill, says he and other justices are behind the idea of making threats to judges a felony.

One might think that the Judge Vigil incident would shame the Senate into taking action next year. But the 2009 bills were sparked by a situation with another judge, Nan Nash, of Albuquerque, who had been threatened by a party in a divorce case she was presiding over. Senate Judiciary turned down Wirth's bill in spite of Nash testifying for it.

My story about the Wirth and Rehm bills can be found HERE.