Ruling that substantial compliance was met and there was no evidence of fraud or misconduct, Judge Teddy Hartley, of the 9th District Court in Clovis, ordered that Senate President Pro Tem Tim Jennings’, D-Roswell, name remain on the June 5 primary ballot. Hartley presided over the case in the 5th Judicial Court in Chaves County.
Roswell farmer Cliff Pirtle, one of Jennings’ opponents for his District 32 Senate seat, filed a lawsuit against the Senate leader for failing to write the district he is seeking on his nominating petitions. Jennings is one of at least a dozen hopefuls who failed to include this information, which was required for the first time this year per Senate Bill 403. The bill was passed during the 2011 regular legislative session.
Secretary of State Dianna Duran deemed Jennings, and the others, eligible candidates after seeking advice from Attorney General Gary King’s office. King’s office advised Duran that court rulings in New Mexico and other states indicate that “substantial compliance” with the candidate filing form is adequate and it’s unlikely a court would reject a candidate solely because a district number was omitted from a nominating petition. Duran, in her capacity as secretary of state, was also listed in Pirtle’s suit as a defendant.
Fred Van Soelen, filling in for Pirtle’s attorney Luke Ragsdale, argued that Jennings didn’t comply with state statute thus rendering his petition and candidacy invalid. He emphasized that the law should apply equally to everyone. Van Soelen made the point that Jennings, a member of the Senate Rules Committee, was present when the SRC heard testimony on the bill and voted in favor of it. Van Soelen and Pirtle, in his testimony, said the recent redistricting was further example of why Jennings, and other candidates, should’ve listed their respective districts on their petitions, as to not confuse voters.
While giving his testimony, Jennings described SB 403 as “a substantial document, more than 100 pages long.” He said the bill was introduced to bring the state’s election code into compliance with federal code. At the time the bill was circulating in the Legislature, Jennings felt its pivotal characteristic was the $400,000-450,000 that would be saved to the state’s budget in updating the code. Jennings said he in no way intended to deceive anyone by not listing District 32 on his petitions.
Loralee Hunt, Jennings’ attorney, asked Pirtle if he was aware of the grounds for which petition and signatures may be rejected, under the 2012 Candidate’s Guide issued by Duran’s office. He replied, “no.” Failure to list the district or division of the office sought is not listed.
Hunt’s office subpoenaed several individuals to testify, including SB 403’s author, Daniel Ivey-Soto. Ivey-Soto described SB 403, which featured 130 pages in its original form, as a “cleanup bill,” aimed at fixing technical issues to New Mexico’s election code. He indicated Sections 57 and 58, which dealt with the issue at stake, of the 110 sections in total, were not entirely clear in what they were asking the candidate to do.
After each side’s concluding remarks, Hartley said the arguments made by Van Soelen and Pirtle, while valid, were not strong enough to disqualify a candidate from the ballot or the voters from their right to elect the candidate of their choice.
Today, the New Mexico Supreme Court will weigh in on the controversy. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments after consolidating 10 lawsuits, including the challenge against Jennings, before making its ultimate decision.
Duran petitioned the Supreme Court, stating she needed a ruling no later than April 11, due to several steps that still need to be taken by her office and New Mexico’s 33 county clerks, to ensure there are enough absentee ballots to send to military personnel and citizens overseas by April 21.