What Weird New Case Involved the Separation of Powers?

Sometimes, lawsuits include surprising lessons about how our government is meant to work. The State of New Mexico v. Alexander Rae Baldwin (2023) certainly does.

The case has yet to be decided and CFFAD has no opinion on what the fact are, nor what the ruling should be.

That said, CFFAD was amazed to learn that the special prosecutor was also serving as a state legislator. (See reporting by KOAT.com here.)  The prosecutor was named before winning election to the state legislature and proposed to serve in both functions going forward.

Why would anyone think this arrangement was a problem? For one thing, the situation creates a conflict of interest – the legislature allocates money to the courts which pay the prosecutor’s salary. Even if the legislator in question pledged to recuse themself from votes involving conflicts of interest, as this one did, how many people would trust them to do so if the stakes were higher – perhaps a dispute over an election outcome, or campaign finance, or gerrymandering, or even a controversial law? How many voters would trust a partisan prosecutor to rule objectively?

The framers of the US Constitution anticipated such situations. To avoid them, they set up what they refer to as a republican (small “r”) form of government where only elected representatives could make the laws (Article I), subject to a presidential veto; only an elected president could enforce the laws (Article II), subject to legislative oversight and funding; and only the judiciary could render justice (Article III). History buffs: see Federalist 47 and Federalist 48.

The Constitution of the State of New Mexico includes a parallel requirement.  Article III, Section 1, states that “The powers of the government of this state are divided into three distinct departments, the legislative, executive and judicial, and no person or collection of persons charged with the exercise of powers properly belonging to one of these departments, shall exercise any powers properly belonging to either of the others, except as in this constitution otherwise expressly directed or permitted.”

The prosecutor in question agreed to step down on March 14, 2023, after a challenge from the defense team.

Image: Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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