The New Mexico Supreme Court has been called upon a number of times in the last four or five years to interpret its state constitution. The New Mexico Constitution varies in a number of respects from the United States Constitution, both in wording, phrasing, and the number and nature of the rights accorded the people of New Mexico.(1) The New Mexico Bill of Rights has twenty-four separate provisions not present in the United States Constitution, including an Equal Rights Amendment and a Victim's Rights Amendment.(2)
New Mexico's right to bear arms provision is considerably different from the provision in the Federal Constitution. The U. S. Constitution provides that "[a] well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."(3) In contrast, the New Mexico Constitution provides:
No law shall abridge the right of the citizen to keep and bear
arms for security and defense, for lawful hunting and recreational
use and for other lawful purposes, but nothing herein
shall be held to permit the carrying of concealed weapons.
No municipality or county shall regulate, in any way, an incident
of the right to keep and bear arms.(4)
Over the last four years, the Supreme Court of the State of New Mexico has refined and developed its method and process of interpreting New Mexico law vis-a-vis federal constitutional law.(5)
Opinions of appellate courts across the nation interpret and apply their state constitutional law to the facts of the particular case before them, but some of these opinions have the advantage of also being teaching opinions.(6)
One such opinion from the Supreme Court of the State of New Mexico is State v. Gomez.(7) Justice Richard Ransom authored the opinion and it may be his permanent legacy to the process, development, and interpretation of New Mexico's state constitutional law. Perhaps it will be his legacy to the process, development, and interpretation of state constitutions across the country.
The Gomez case involved the search and seizure of an automobile without a warrant under exigent circumstances.(8) The New Mexico Court of Appeals, in an unpublished opinion, affirmed the conviction of Gomez, holding that, in the trial court, the defendant had failed to prove "the search invalid under Article II, Section 10 of the New Mexico Constitution."(9) That section "proscribes unreasonable searches and seizures and requires specificity and probable cause for warrants, even if permitted under the virtually same Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution."(10) The Supreme Court of New Mexico granted certiorari for two reasons: to determine, first, how an unreasonable search and seizure claim under the New Mexico Constitution is preserved for appellate review, and, second, when the state can conduct a warrantless search of an automobile.(11)
These questions brought to the court's attention the more interesting question of how the Supreme Court of New Mexico would proceed with independent constitutional interpretation not only in this case, but in the future. The opinion sets forth the court's preference for the interstitial method of state constitutional adjudication and the reasons underlying that preference.(12) The following brief discussion of the history of state constitutional adjudication in New Mexico will serve as background to illustrate the importance of the Gomez opinion.
II. HISTORY OF STATE CONSTITUTIONAL ADJUDICATION IN NEW MEXICO
Early in the century and continuing for several decades thereafter, the Supreme Court of New Mexico interpreted its constitution lockstep(13) with federal precedent interpreting similar provisions of the U.S. Constitution.(14) However, the Gomez opinion noted that in State ex rel. Serna v. Hodges,(15) the court considered the constitutionality of the death penalty and asserted its independence, stating:
[T]he states have inherent power as separate sovereigns in
our federalist system to provide more liberty than is mandated
by the United States Constitution:
We [consider Article II, Section 13 of the New Mexico Constitution]
as the ultimate arbiters of the law of New Mexico. …