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N.M. Supreme Court justice cites security concerns in pushing exemption to public records law

“We also have noted recently an uptick in people trying to kind of suss out what the security system is at the New Mexico Supreme Court,” the chief justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court said. (Austin Fisher / Source NM)
Lawmaker anticipates ‘predictable opposition’ against proposal to weaken state’s sunshine law

A panel of lawmakers that weighs New Mexico’s court system between legislative sessions chose not to endorse a proposal to weaken the state’s sunshine law in order to protect judges from violence.

But the lawmaker who objected to the bill suggested that work could still be done to convince transparency advocates that it would be a good change.

New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice Shannon Bacon presented draft legislation to the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee on Tuesday on behalf of the Administrative Office of the Courts.

One of the bills she presented would add a seventh exemption to one of the state’s two main sunshine laws, the Inspection of Public Records Act.

“We think security systems, planning, schematics, for any state building, any government building, should be protected from IPRA requests,” she told the committee.

The draft of the bill presented to the committee would prohibit the public from seeing records “from the security system of a facility of the state or a political subdivision of the state” that could “expose vulnerabilities in security systems” to attack a government building.

“Political subdivisions” include things like city and county governments and state agencies.

The bill lists the following as falling under that category of security system records:

  • Security camera video footage or images.
  • Control system records and information.
  • Alarm system records and information.
  • Security system technical specifications.
  • Security system operation records.
  • Security system placement information.

“We receive IPRA requests that are not nefarious necessarily but that will say, ‘Please give us the camera footage from X events in court,’” Bacon said. “We also have noted recently an uptick in people trying to kind of suss out what the security system is at the New Mexico Supreme Court, including a gentleman walking around our building, taking pictures of all of our cameras with an iPad.”

Local journalists routinely use security camera footage in their reporting, either from public buildings or obtained by police from private ones. In one case, a local newspaper in 2019 used security camera footage to substantiate allegations of theft by a city manager. (Disclosure: Austin Fisher edited that series of stories.)

Committee Chair Sen. Joseph Cervantes (D-Las Cruces) objected to the bill because the language as written is too broad.

“I’m going to lodge an objection, with all due respect, but simply not because of the concept. I liked the concept,” Cervantes said. “But I think we should probably spend some time defining clearly what we want to exempt from IPRA when we talk about security systems, because I think the way I read the bill, it’s essentially all records related to security systems.”

Cervantes said he is concerned about shielding from public view documents related to procurement, the process the New Mexico government must go through to fairly and transparently buy goods and services from private companies.

“I know you wouldn’t intend to do that, but I think this would exempt that,” Cervantes said. “We want to make sure that when people are bidding contracts, and buying the equipment and doing those kinds of things, that those records are not exempted from IPRA.”

Cervantes also said the measure’s sponsors should work hard to “bring in the predictable opposition” who have historically opposed the Legislature’s efforts to add more exemptions to IPRA, including the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government and the Albuquerque Journal.

“We spent a lot of time thinking about whether to bring this bill or not, because we know that touching IPRA has always felt like the third rail,” Bacon said with a laugh. “But we really believe that there needs to be one modification” to IPRA.

Cervantes suggested they work with those transparency advocates and persuade them that “judges are at risk, judges are being assassinated, their families are being killed.”

There are already six exemptions prohibiting the public from seeing various kinds of records written into IPRA.

One of those carveouts has very similar language to the draft legislation, and already allows the government to withhold its “tactical response plans or procedures” that “could reveal specific vulnerabilities, risk assessments or tactical emergency security procedures that could be used to facilitate the planning or execution of a terrorist attack.”