SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico’s highest court revived a lawsuit on Wednesday that seeks to remove a maverick Democratic legislator from the June 3 primary election ballot.
The outcome of the election challenge is being closely watched by Democrats and Republicans because Rep. Sandra Jeff of Crownpoint has sided with the GOP and Gov. Susana Martinez on high-profile legislative votes, including backing the governor’s proposal to stop New Mexico from issuing driver’s licenses to immigrants living illegally in the country.
Jeff, a member of the Navajo Nation, is among five Native Americans serving in the 70-member House.
The state Supreme Court ordered the election challenge back to a district court in Gallup for a hearing Friday on whether Jeff submitted enough valid voter signatures on nominating petitions to qualify as a candidate.
McKinley County resident Larry King brought the lawsuit with the assistance of an environmental group, Conservation Voters New Mexico, which contends Jeff has a poor environmental voting record.
Two other Democrats are running against Jeff in the primary.
District Judge Louis DePauli had dismissed the election challenge against Jeff because he determined she didn’t receive proper legal notice of the lawsuit.
But the state Supreme Court disagreed after a 45-minute hearing on Wednesday and ordered DePauli to consider the dispute over Jeff’s nominating petitions. The judge must make a decision by Monday, and the Supreme Court temporarily blocked the secretary of state from mailing out ballots to any overseas voters from the district while the case is pending. Without the order, ballots would have been mailed on Saturday.
With Democrats clinging to a narrow majority in the House, Jeff has become a swing vote on several key issues. A $6.2 billion budget proposal failed in the House on a tie vote earlier this year after Jeff joined Republicans in opposing the measure. Jeff later supported a compromise budget bill that was signed into law.
Jeff did not attend the Supreme Court hearing or last month’s district court hearing. She also had no lawyer representing her in the proceedings.
Pat Rogers, a prominent Republican lawyer and ally of the governor, represented a McKinley County voter — the mother of a Jeff campaign worker — who intervened in the lawsuit.
Rogers, who doesn’t represent Jeff, told the justices that the district court had properly dismissed the election challenge.
Jeff needs the signatures of 78 Democratic voters from her district to qualify as a candidate.
Sara Berger, a lawyer for King, said she’s confident that Jeff doesn’t have enough valid signatures because some of the 91 the lawmaker submitted on nominating petitions are of voters in other districts, the wrong political party or are duplicates.