New Mexico attorney general decides against appealing records-law ruling

Attorney General Hector Balderas seemed poised to appeal after a state court ruled against his office last month in a lawsuit over New Mexico’s open-records law.

But amid mounting concerns from advocates of government transparency that he could undermine what they viewed as a big win for the public’s right to know, Balderas ruled out an appeal late Wednesday.

The ruling by the state Court of Appeals promised to give bite to the Inspection of Public Records Act by allowing fines of up to $100 a day when agencies improperly withhold documents requested under the statute.

The case began with Marcy Britton, an animal rights activist who objected to then-Attorney General Gary King’s Animal Cruelty Task Force raiding Hispanic ranches on the supposition it would find cockfighting rings. The raids, carried out by many uniformed police officers and even a helicopter in one instance, usually turned up no cockfights.

But the raiders often killed all the roosters, hens and chicks they found, claiming the birds might have been raised on steroids and could contaminate the food chain. Britton said King’s task force operated like a vigilante group that steamrolled ranchers without evidence.

Britton found years later that Democrat King’s office had withheld mounds of documents that fell under her request for documents. Britton sued and the appeals court agreed with her that King’s office wrongly withheld the records.

The Inspection of Public Records Act says a court can impose fines of up to $100 a day on a government agency when it does not properly explain why records have been withheld.

State District Judge C. Shannon Bacon, who first heard the case, said those penalties did not apply in this case. Under Bacon’s interpretation, those penalties only apply when a government agency fails to respond to a request for records by deadlines set under the law. (Read more…)