Judge gives both sides win over fees dispute in public education lawsuit

April 20, 2019 GMT

A state judge has called a draw in a small side show of a high-profile lawsuit on public education spending.

On Thursday, First Judicial District Judge Sarah Singleton handed partial victory to both sides when she issued her ruling on the plaintiffs’ request for about $450,000 in legal expenses; she approved some costs but rejected others.

In late March, attorneys who represented a coalition of parents, students and educators in the case, Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico — accusing the state of failing to provide enough resources for some of its most vulnerable public school students — had asked Singleton, who ruled last year in their favor, to award the fees.

Lawyers for the state countered, however, that New Mexico should not have to bear all of those costs because some seemed excessive or unnecessary — such as expert witnesses’ travel expenses, hotel fare and pay for services; costs for taking depositions; and calls made by attorneys.

In two rulings on the award request, issued Thursday, Singleton agreed with state attorneys that the plaintiffs should not be reimbursed for telephone costs because the state has no law allowing for that. She also agreed that the state should not have to pay more than than court-allowed per diem rates to house and feed expert witnesses who traveled to New Mexico to testify for the plaintiffs during a weekslong trial in the summer of 2017.

However, Singleton rejected state attorneys’ arguments that some witnesses could have testified by phone rather than accruing travel costs to appear in court.

“A witness who had conducted all of her interviews by telephone would not have been as persuasive,” Singleton wrote. “This in-person contact was reasonably necessary to the litigation.”

Singleton did not give a dollar figure for how much the state must pay to the two groups of plaintiffs in the consolidated case; instead, she directed their attorneys to draft new orders on the legal fee awards that include only the costs she approved.

In her June ruling against the state, Singleton ordered lawmakers and the governor to come up with a plan by this week to prove they would initiate and fund programs to ensure an adequate education for students who she found were underserved by public schools in New Mexico: English-language learners, children from impoverished families, special-education students and Native American kids.

As a result, the New Mexico Legislature passed measures overhauling its formula for public education funding to target the needs of those students and funneling an extra $480 million into the education budget for the next fiscal year.

Attorneys for both the state and the plaintiffs are expected to file arguments soon on whether the state is doing enough to improve the quality of education for those groups of students and to satisfy Singleton’s ruling in the landmark lawsuit.

As of Thursday, it was unclear if either side had submitted those documents to the court.