A federal judge has taken the unusual step of ordering a politically ambitious New Mexico attorney to pay back the state for filing a “frivolous” lawsuit aimed at undoing efforts to reform the state’s commercial bail system.
The attorney, Blair Dunn, a Libertarian who earlier this week announced a run for state attorney general, must pay “reasonable costs and attorneys fees” to the office he seeks to occupy by year’s end, under the ruling by Chief U.S. District Judge Robert A. Junell.
Junell, a George W. Bush appointee from the Western District of Texas, presided over the suit because the Attorney General’s Office represented the judges Dunn was suing, from the New Mexico Supreme Court, the Second Judicial District Court and the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court. Dunn sued last year on behalf of a group of state lawmakers, the Bail Bond Association of New Mexico and a woman who was released from jail last year.
Junell dismissed the case with prejudice in December, meaning it cannot be refiled. He ruled that the lawmakers and the bondsmen’s association did not have standing to sue, and that the woman, Darlene Collins, failed to demonstrate that her rights under the Fourth, Eighth and Fourteenth amendments had been violated by the reform efforts.
He also held that judges cannot be sued for money damages because they are “protected under well-established immunity doctrines.”
On Thursday, Junell went a step further and sanctioned Dunn.
“Sanctions are appropriate to deter plaintiffs’ counsel from filing unsupportable lawsuits for political purposes,” Junell wrote in his blistering, 15-page order.
“Judicial defendants made plaintiffs aware of the law regarding their claims for money damages,” he continued, “yet, plaintiffs’ counsel forged ahead with these groundless claims.”
Dunn and the AG’s Office have 30 days to figure out how much he owes the state for costs and attorneys fees, according to the judge’s order. If they can’t agree on a figure, the AG’s Office will make the calculations on its own.
Several attorneys who spoke with NMID said financial sanctions against an attorney such as those leveled against Dunn are rare in the federal system.
Reached by telephone, Dunn pointed out he has appealed Junell’s dismissal of the lawsuit. He said he plans to amend his filings before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals to include objections to the sanctions issued Thursday, which Dunn called improper.
Dunn also questioned why the other three attorneys working with him on the case were not singled out for sanctions and mentioned several times “judicial corruption” in New Mexico.
He said Junell has a home in Santa Fe and is often referred cases from New Mexico.
Asked whether he was accusing the judge of corruption, Dunn said: “No, I am not.”
The Attorney General’s Office asked for sanctions against Dunn after Junell issued an injunction in the case last fall. Dunn questioned the timing of the request.
“I think the AG’s Office is targeting me because I am a threat to Hector” Balderas, the current Attorney General, he said, adding that Junell’s ruling came three days after he announced his intention to run against Balderas.
Artie Pepin, director of the state Administrative Office of the Courts, the administrative arm of the state Supreme Court, said in a written statement that Junell made the right decision in granting sanctions.
“The federal court has appropriately required the reimbursement of New Mexico taxpayers for the expense of defending against frivolous claims in the bail bond industry’s lawsuit,” Pepin said. “New Mexico courts will continue to set appropriate release conditions for defendants and keep in jail those who are shown to be too dangerous to be released.”
Dunn brought the suit last summer, alleging that state Supreme Court rules issued to help judges enact a constitutional amendment to the bail system were themselves unconstitutional.
The amendment was passed in November 2016, with 87 percent approval from New Mexico voters. It allows judges to hold people who are provably dangerous behind bars pre-trial with no bond, while restricting them from holding lower level offenders in jail simply because they cannot afford a money bail to get out — a massive shift from the bail bondsmen-driven system used in the state and around the country for decades.
Dunn represented Republican state senators Craig Brandt and William Sharer, Democratic Sen. Richard Martinez, Rep. Carl Trujillo, a Democrat, the bondsmen’s association and Collins in the suit.
Junell’s ruling comes less than two weeks before the beginning of the 2018 legislative session, where lawmakers are expected to debate the effects of the constitutional amendment on New Mexico’s criminal justice system.
Republican Gov. Susana Martinez has blamed the reforms for rising crime rates around the state, particularly in Albuquerque. In an October Facebook post, she wrote: “The only way forward is to repeal this dangerous amendment and replace the irresponsible pretrial detention rules.”
Lawmakers tell NMID that the Martinez administration has not offered an alternative to the constitutional change, and it is unclear whether any legislators plan to carry a bill that would seek to undo it.
Editor’s note: This story has been clarified to more accurately reflect when the Attorney General’s Office asked the judge to issue sanctions against Dunn.