Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

NM courts no longer require masks, distancing or screening

On Monday New Mexico courts will end requirements for masking, social distancing and visitor screening, unless future circumstances call for precautions, officials announced this week.

This follows the end of the state’s emergency public health order that expired on Friday.  It also means that the group of court officials in charge of monitoring the pandemic is off their assignment and will no longer meet to discuss how COVID impacts the courthouses across the state.

New Mexico’s judicial branch is lifting all of its COVID-related protocols “in recognition of changes in the pandemic” and the executive branch’s emergency order that expired on Friday, according to a news release by the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC).

Since March 2022, courts enforced three-feet social distancing and required masks inside courtrooms and jury assembly areas, the AOC wrote. Now, court workers, judges and hearing officers will no longer be required to wear masks while interacting with the public.

The current precautions were already a regression from what happened in the first two years of the pandemic, when the courts enforced six-feet social distancing and a mask requirement for anyone entering any courthouse.

All of that is over. And people going to courts on Monday will have a much different experience.

Courts will continue to conduct many proceedings remotely, Chief Justice Shannon Bacon said.

“As we move forward and resume normal operations, courts can fully use all available space in courtrooms and jury assembly areas to conduct more trials and hearings,” Bacon said.

Over 250 people in the U.S. are dying from COVID each day, according to state and local health agencies; official counts are widely acknowledged to be underestimates.

More than 34,000 people have died of COVID in the U.S. since the beginning of the year, through March 30, according to Johns Hopkins University. At least 1.1 million people have died from COVID in the U.S. so far.

People summoned for jury duty can still ask to be excused for medical reasons, such as being immunocompromised, said state courts spokesperson Barry Massey.

“Prospective jurors can request an excusal through the online jury system rather than traveling to a courthouse,” Massey said.

Judges will still have discretion to make medical accommodations for people required to attend in-person hearings and trials, including for litigants, witnesses and other parties, Massey said. 

A judge, for example, could require participants in a hearing to wear masks if that was deemed a necessary safeguard for a medically risky litigant, Massey said.

A judge could also make a hearing hybrid, with an at-risk litigant or witness appearing remotely while others appear in person, Massey said.

“Courts certainly recognize that some individuals face an elevated risk of severe illness and will make every effort to ensure they have full and safe access to the justice system,” Massey said. “That was the practice of courts during the past three years of the pandemic and will continue.”

The decision to end masking in New Mexico courts was made by the Supreme Court’s Emergency Response Team.

AOC Director Artie Pepin, a member of the team, said in an interview Friday they made the decision based on the determination that the risk of COVID has reached a similar level to that of other public health issues.

“We felt that our willingness to accommodate people who expressed to us particular concerns is sufficient for us to operate as normal, whatever normal is, in our courthouses,” Pepin said.

He said court officials require every court facility to run portable air filters in every area where the public, court staff and judges go, and to regularly get new filters replaced.

He said he anticipates that the Emergency Response Team will not meet any more, “unless some condition arises where the court says, ‘You know what, this is getting a little more serious than it was before.’”

Pepin said in order for masking requirements to return to New Mexico courts, “we would have to experience rising transmission rates to the point where we felt that we needed to take more action than what we have to address them.”

“It’s not a hard and fast rule,” he said. “We very carefully consider the impact all around on making people do things or allowing people to do the things that they feel they need to do.”

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