- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 17, 2014

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - New Mexico’s highest court is giving speedy consideration to a lawsuit by Santa Fe County seeking to place a nonbinding question over marijuana on the November general election ballot.

The state Supreme Court scheduled a hearing Friday on the county’s legal challenge, and the justices could decide the case after listening to arguments from lawyers. A quick ruling by the court would allow local elections officials to meet a Saturday deadline for sending absentee ballots to overseas and military voters.

However, it’s possible the elections dispute could end up being resolved by a federal judge.

Bernalillo County has filed a similar lawsuit with the Supreme Court over advisory ballot questions, but Secretary of State Dianna Duran is trying to shift it to federal court. A federal magistrate judge has scheduled a hearing Thursday afternoon in Albuquerque on Duran’s request.

Both counties want the Supreme Court to force Duran to add their advisory questions to the ballot. One measure would poll the counties’ voters on whether they support lowering penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana. Bernalillo County also wants to survey voters on their views on a possible tax levy for mental health services.

None of the measures, however, would have the force of law and Duran maintains that state law doesn’t allow nonbinding ballot questions.

The advisory questions on marijuana, according to Republican critics, are an attempt by Democrats to encourage greater turnout among Democratic-leaning younger and liberal voters.

Bernalillo County accounts for a third of the state’s registered voter, and Santa Fe - the third most populous county - is heavily Democratic.

Bernalillo County filed its lawsuit with the Supreme Court on Monday and the justices are to hear it next week. The court also blocked the county from mailing out absentee ballots to overseas and military voters until the dispute is resolved.

Saturday is a federal deadline for sending out the overseas ballots, and Duran contends the constitutional rights of overseas voters will be violated if ballots are delayed. Duran wants the federal court to order ballots to go out without delay and without the advisory questions.

Bernalillo County opposes Duran’s request.

“The Bernalillo County Commission has the right to decide what appears on the ballot and the New Mexico Supreme Court clearly has jurisdiction to uphold New Mexico’s election law,” Commission Chairwoman Debbie O’Malley said in a statement.

Santa Fe County filed its lawsuit with the Supreme Court on Tuesday and a day later the justices scheduled the case for a hearing.


Follow Barry Massey on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bmasseyAP

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