Judge dismisses emissions case

The Associated Press

LAS CRUCES — A state district judge decided Monday that he would not hear a lawsuit over the state Environmental Improvement Board’s recent adoption of more stringent emission standards for new vehicles in New Mexico.

In dismissing the case, state District Judge Robert Robles in Las Cruces ruled that the lawsuit should have been filed with the New Mexico Court of Appeals rather than in district court.

Victor Marshall, an Albuquerque lawyer who is handling the case for the plaintiffs, said late Monday it’s not clear whether he will have to refile the case with the appellate court but he noted that the merits of the case have yet to be decided.

“The lawsuit is still out there,” he said. “There have been no decisions about who’s right or who’s wrong.”

Curry County farmer Scott Pipkin joined four Democratic lawmakers — Sen. John Arthur Smith of Deming, Sen. Timothy Jennings of Roswell, Rep. George Hanosch of Grants and Rep. Jim Trujillo of Santa Fe in the lawsuit along with four car dealers from Clovis, Alamogordo and Las Cruces.

It argues a state law prevents the board from adopting air quality regulations more stringent than federal air quality requirements.

At issue is a legal question about the powers of the legislative and executive branches of government and whether the executive branch could bypass the Legislature and enact more stringent standards by decree.

Last month, the state Environmental Improvement Board and the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Air Quality Control Board adopted the tougher emission standards. They mandate cleaner-burning cars and trucks to help fight global warming.

The requirements, first adopted by California, will apply starting with 2011 model cars, which become available to consumers in 2010.

The plaintiffs argue that the Legislature must change state law before the California standards could be approved.

New Mexico Environment Secretary Ron Curry praised Monday’s ruling.

“This lobbying effort has attempted to stop the Clean Cars program in every state and on every level and at every turn has failed,” he said. “Now is the time for everyone to join this national effort to reduce vehicle pollution and fight global warming.”

Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Deming legislator who backed the lawsuit, said he expected that the district court would not want to deal with the case.

Smith said he became involved because “there needs to be checks and balances in place.” He said he did not want the executive branch thinking it could go unchecked.

Curry said the regulations were not developed overnight and the department has been working for years on recommendations for tougher standards.

“The language in the state statute is unambiguous — the Environmental Improvement Board has the clear authority to regulate vehicle emissions provided they are consistent with federal law. These rules are consistent with federal law,” he said.

Marshall, the Albuquerque lawyer, said it would be in everyone’s best interest to have a decision on the merits of the case soon.

“The problem is we still think this issue needs to be decided as soon as possible because we have an upcoming legislative session,” he said, noting that if state law needs to be changed and state officials are serious about tougher emissions the matter could be placed on the agenda.