Carter v. City of Las Cruces

Decision Date08 March 1996
Docket NumberNo. 15897,15897
PartiesAnderson CARTER, II, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. The CITY OF LAS CRUCES, New Mexico, and Ruben Smith, in his capacity as Mayor, and Bruno Zaldo, in his official capacity as City Manager, and Herculano Ferralez, Gene Kennon, Jack Valencia, Henry Benavidez, Tommy Tomlin, and John Haltom, in their capacities as City Councilors, Defendants-Appellees.
CourtCourt of Appeals of New Mexico

Appeal from the District Court of Dona Ana County; Graden W. Beal, District Judge.

Lawrence R. White, Joel T. Newton, Las Cruces, for Appellant.

Harry S. (Pete) Connelly, Las Cruces, William L. Lutz, Las Cruces, for Appellees.


BOSSON, Judge.

1. The City of Las Cruces called a municipal election to decide whether the City should acquire a private electric utility either by negotiated purchase or eminent domain. Plaintiff, a local citizen taxpayer, opposed the acquisition. He filed suit to enjoin the City and various municipal officials from expending public funds as part of a mass media campaign to promote a favorable vote in the election. Plaintiff alleged a violation of various state and federal statutory and constitutional provisions including the federal Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (1988). The district court dismissed Plaintiff's complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. In so doing, the court erred, and we reverse. We also hold on an issue of first impression that, even if injunctive relief has been rendered moot by the election, the potential for nominal damages under § 1983 presents a continuing justiciable controversy which is not moot. We therefore remand for further proceedings.


2. The City passed a resolution on July 5, 1994, calling for a special election on August 30, 1994. On August 9, 1994, Plaintiff filed a petition for declaratory relief and temporary and permanent injunction together with a motion for temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction. Plaintiff alleged that City officials were biased in favor of the utility acquisition and were wrongfully using public funds in a partisan fashion to promote a favorable vote. More specifically, Plaintiff alleged that the City used public funds to hire advertising firms, conduct public opinion surveys, hire personnel, assign public employees, and make public facilities available, all for partisan purposes as distinguished from simply educational or informational purposes. Toward that end, the City allegedly used public funds to purchase such things as brochures, yard signs, billboards, and advertising on television, radio, and newspaper. The City was even alleged to have registered as a political action committee. Plaintiff charged the City with wrongfully spending or setting aside for expenditure over $80,000 in public funds.

3. In his lawsuit, Plaintiff claimed the City violated various state statutes dealing with campaign practices and municipal elections (citing NMSA 1978, §§ 1-19-1 to -36 (Repl.1995) and NMSA 1978, §§ 3-8-1 to -80 (Repl.1995)) as well as certain municipal ordinances and regulations regarding local elections and campaign practices. Plaintiff also claimed a violation of the United States Constitution, including the First and Fourteenth Amendments and art. IV, § 4 which guarantees to every state a republican form of government. Plaintiff further cited to various provisions of the New Mexico Constitution, including art. II, § 18 (equal protection and due process); art. II, § 17 (freedom of expression); and art. II, § 8 (free and open elections).

4. On August 15, 1994, the district court conducted a hearing and dismissed Plaintiff's petition for want of subject matter jurisdiction. At the hearing, the court expressed its reliance on Sangre de Cristo Development Corp. v. City of Santa Fe, 84 N.M. 343, 347, 503 P.2d 323, 327 (1972), cert. denied, 411 U.S. 938, 93 S.Ct. 1900, 36 L.Ed.2d 400 (1973), a case which held under state law that principles of common law sovereign immunity preclude a state court from issuing an injunction against a municipality. After his claim was dismissed in state court, Plaintiff then filed suit in federal court seeking the same injunctive relief on similar grounds. However, the federal court elected to abstain in the hope that the state court would reconsider its dismissal and decide Plaintiff's case on state law grounds, thereby making it unnecessary to decide the federal constitutional claims. On August 30, 1994, the very day of the special election, Plaintiff returned to state court with a motion for reconsideration as well as a request for leave to file an amended complaint expanding relief to include compensatory damages. On September 13, 1994, the court denied all of Plaintiff's requests. Plaintiff timely appealed from both orders.

Federal Claims

5. Initially, we decide whether the district court was correct in dismissing the federal constitutional claims for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Section 1983 reads, in part:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State ... subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress.

It is settled that state and federal courts share concurrent jurisdiction over § 1983 claims for the denial of federal constitutional rights. See Martinez v. California, 444 U.S. 277, 283 n. 7, 100 S.Ct. 553, 558 n. 7, 62 L.Ed.2d 481 (1980). State courts share responsibility for the application and enforcement of federal law as part of our American system of federalism. Howlett By and Through Howlett v. Rose, 496 U.S. 356, 372-73, 110 S.Ct. 2430, 2440-41, 110 L.Ed.2d 332 (1990) (applying the Supremacy Clause to a § 1983 claim brought in state court).

Federal law is enforceable in state courts not because Congress has determined that federal courts would otherwise be burdened or that state courts might provide a more convenient forum--although both might well be true--but because the Constitution and laws passed pursuant to it are as much laws in the States as laws passed by the state legislature. The Supremacy Clause makes those laws "the supreme Law of the Land," and charges state courts with a coordinate responsibility to enforce that law according to their regular modes of procedure.

Id. at 367, 110 S.Ct. at 2438. New Mexico state courts are open to § 1983 claims at least to the same degree as are federal courts. See, e.g., Daddow v. Carlsbad Mun. Sch. Dist., 120 N.M. 97, 898 P.2d 1235 (1995), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 116 S.Ct. 753, 133 L.Ed.2d 700 (1996).

6. When common law defenses like sovereign immunity are asserted against a § 1983 action, they are governed by federal law regardless of whether they might be permitted under state law. Howlett, 496 U.S. at 383, 110 S.Ct. at 2446-47; Owen v. City of Independence, 445 U.S. 622, 648-49, 100 S.Ct. 1398, 1413-15, 63 L.Ed.2d 673 (1980). The United States Supreme Court has held that a municipality is a "person" within the meaning of § 1983, and therefore may be held " 'liable to the party injured in any action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress.' " Monell v. Department of Social Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 692, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 2036, 56 L.Ed.2d 611 (1978) (quoting the language of § 1983). Accordingly, New Mexico state courts must entertain § 1983 claims against municipalities, and state law sovereign immunity is neither a defense nor a bar to subject matter jurisdiction. See Martinez, 444 U.S. at 284 n. 8, 100 S.Ct. at 558-59 n. 8; cf. Daddow, 120 N.M. at 105-06, 898 P.2d at 1243-44 (local school board is a "person" under § 1983 and may be sued in New Mexico state court). In the case before us, the district court erroneously dismissed Plaintiff's § 1983 claims for just this reason, and therefore the decision must be reversed. See generally Sheldon H. Nahmod, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Litigation § 1.14 (3d ed. 1991); Charles A. Wright, Law of Federal Courts § 45, at 287-92 (5th ed. 1994) (state enforcement of federal law); Kenneth J. Wilbur, Comment, Concurrent Jurisdiction and Attorney's Fees: The Obligation of State Courts to Hear Section 1983 Claims, 134 U.Pa.L.Rev. 1207 (1986).

7. Although the court below based its dismissal on a lack of jurisdiction and not on a failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, the district court nonetheless intimated serious reservations about the viability of Plaintiff's constitutional claims. On this appeal, we need not and do not decide whether Plaintiff states a valid claim for violation of federal constitutional rights. That question is for the district court to address in the first instance. However, because we are remanding this case for further proceedings, we do observe that Plaintiff's claims under the United States Constitution are not without support. See Mountain States Legal Found. v. Denver Sch. Dist. No. 1, 459 F.Supp. 357, 360-61 (D.Colo.1978); Palm Beach County v. Hudspeth, 540 So.2d 147 154 (Fla.Dist.Ct.App.1989). In addition, a number of judicial authorities, although resting their holdings on other grounds, such as state law, find support in the constitution for the general proposition that, at some threshold level, a public entity must refrain from spending public funds to promote a partisan position during an election campaign. See, e.g., Stanson v. Mott, 17 Cal.3d 206, 130 Cal.Rptr. 697, 704-05, 551 P.2d 1, 8-9 (1976) (Tobriner, J.); Anderson v. City of Boston, 376 Mass. 178, 380 N.E.2d 628, 635-39 (1978), appeal dismissed, 439 U.S. 1060, 99 S.Ct. 822, 59 L.Ed.2d 26 (1979); Citizens to Protect Pub. Funds v. Board of Educ., 13 N.J. 172, 98 A.2d 673, 677-78 (...

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