Commentary: For the second time in as many years, Governor Susana Martinez on Wednesday vetoed an uncontroversial measure to improve court interpreter services in New Mexico, putting into focus her past efforts as a District Attorney to keep Spanish-speakers from serving on juries. Sponsored by Senator Mimi Stewart (D-17-Bernalillo), Senate Bill 210, “Create Court Language Access Fund”, was a measure without fiscal impact that would set up a new fund to be administered by the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) for paying court interpreters and related expenses. It removed court translators from being paid through the Jury and Witness Fee Fund. The bill drew the Governor’s veto despite being passed without opposition in both the Senate and House.
“Respect for all languages is part of New Mexico’s culture since its inception, and the New Mexico Constitution gave Spanish speakers unique protections when it was adopted,” said Senator Stewart. “Therefore, it is vital that everyone, regardless of language spoken, has equal access to the courts.”
In 2000, then-DA Susana Martinez took vigorous legal action to disqualify people who do not speak English from serving as jurors, taking her case all the way to the state Supreme Court. The Constitution of New Mexico protects people who speak and read either English or Spanish, however. The New Mexico Supreme Court rejected Martinez’s push to keep Spanish-speaking people from serving on juries in Dona Ana County, or anywhere in the state.
In her veto message, the Governor states that it is unnecessary to create a new fund to be managed by the AOC. She either does not understand or does not want to understand that this legislation only segregates funds for interpreter and jury services, which are constitutionally separated, and does not have a fiscal impact on the state. Therefore, signing the bill would have led to better transparency for interpreter and jury expenditure.
In 2015 an identical version (HB 89) of SB 210, which also had no fiscal impact, was passed unanimously in both chambers as well. It too was subsequently vetoed by the Governor via a pocket veto, which did not require Martinez to give an explanation as to why she killed the measure. Both bills were requested by the Courts.
In addition to ruling against DA Susana Martinez in 2000 in the issue of excluding non-English speakers from jury service, the New Mexico Supreme Court reaffirmed the decision in 2013 in State v. Samora. The Supreme Court wrote that excusing a Spanish-speaking prospective juror violated Article VII, Section 3 of New Mexico’s Constitution. Our constitution provides that the right of any citizen to sit upon a jury may never be impaired on account of inability to speak the English or Spanish languages.