Martinez on Trial: Free press and open records are at the heart of the newspaper’s lawsuit against the governor. At last, a judge will decide.

By, Jeff Proctor/ Journalist

From the Santa Fe Reporter

Martinez on Trial: Free press and open records are at the heart of the newspaper’s lawsuit against the governor. At last, a judge will decide.

The journalists huddled, expectant but wary, around a disarranged desk in the cluttered newsroom on Marcy Street. They didn’t even know if the telephone number was hers, and for the small, sleep-starved staff—two reporters and their editor—it was a longshot anyway.

They had seen more stone walls than a prototype sedan in a crash test lab as they reported on secrecy, influence-peddling and questionable dealings that involved people in the highest reaches of state government.

Still, they had to try. The job fell to Joey Peters, then a staff writer for the Santa Fe Reporter. No one said it out loud, but as the telephone rang on June 6, 2013, Peters, his colleague, Justin Horwath, and the Reporter’s then-editor, Alexa Schirtzinger, were all thinking the same thing: “What’s she going to say?”

She answered. Then, anticlimax.

Peters identified himself, but as he fired off a litany of long-pondered, substantive questions, she suggested he contact Enrique Knell, her then-communications director. Peters told her he’d tried many times, but the well-paid spokesman was disinclined to speak.

“I wonder why,” Gov. Susana Martinez said, then hung up the phone.

“We thought: ‘Wow, it kind of sounds like they really are targeting us,’” Schirtzinger says now, recalling the truncated call more than three years later. “Clearly it isn’t that they aren’t getting our calls and requests. It’s that they don’t like us.”

The three flashed on a disturbing reality: no matter what they did—no matter how many public records they requested under state law or how early they asked for comment before a story published—nothing was going to change.

Schirtzinger considered a growing list of unfulfilled requests made under the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act, known as IPRA. Feeling frustrated, out of options and like her efforts to bring readers the news had been hamstrung, she called Daniel Yohalem, a civil rights attorney with a long history of open government advocacy. Katherine Murray, another Santa Fe attorney, soon joined the discussion and, on Sept. 3, 2013, the Santa Fe Reporter sued Gov. Martinez.

Now, the case is going to trial. The three former Reporter staffers and its current leadership are expected to testify. So are a host of current and former Martinez administration insiders, although the governor herself is not on the witness list. District Court Judge Sarah Singleton will decide after a three-day bench trial sheduled to begin Nov. 21 whether Martinez broke the law when she allegedly denied the existence of documents the Reporter already had, delayed the release of other records and shattered the limits of the state sunshine law to get around producing still more public documents.

The newspaper’s public records claims are not unusual, although they allege a pattern of withholding documents. The Reporter also brought a second claim, the first of its kind: that the governor violated the newspaper’s free press rights under the state constitution by consistently not responding to routine questions on garden-variety topics from its journalists—questions submitted contemporaneously by reporters at other news organizations on the same topics.

If the newspaper prevails at trial, the lawsuit could strengthen press freedoms and access to state officials.

Read more: