Kathleen Dudley

 

What do you do when the choice is obvious, but when the decision resulting from this choice challenges the law, the status quo, and the popular culture? Such a choice was put before the Mora County Commission this past April. In spite of this conflict, Chair John Olivas and Vice-chair Alfonso Griego voted to pass into law a “Bill of Rights” protecting citizens’ health, safety and welfare over complying with state and federal legal doctrines that give “big oil” the privileged rights to drill and frack Mora County.

 

The end of slavery, the recognition of women’s rights and the civil rights movement began as grassroots challenges that ultimately effected constitutional change. The action taken by Olivas and Griego is likewise a challenge aimed at changing the Constitution. Twenty-seven amendments to the Constitution, which reflect the “living” nature of the “law of the land,” emphasize a clear legal process for such challenges.

 

The Mora County Community Water Rights and Local Self-Government Ordinance bans all oil and gas extraction. It also addresses the fact that the current regulatory system of law created on behalf of industry guarantees corporation access into New Mexico counties. State and federal government issuance of permits to corporations legalize corporate development and affords them protection for such development under four main legal doctrines—the Contracts and Commerce Clause, Dillion’s Rule, Preemption and Corporate Personhood. Each doctrine affords privileged rights to corporations, in essence subordinating the rights of people and municipal corporations (counties) to those of corporate rights.

 

These doctrines assure development within counties regardless the majority decision within the county. Mora County’s community rights law nullifies each of the legal doctrines and asserts and enforces the rights of the people and nature above those rights afforded corporations.

 

The New Mexico State Constitution, Article 2, declares that all governing authority is derived from the people. The vote by the Mora County Commission expresses a clear and authoritative “voice” not only to challenge these doctrines, but to subsequently work towards changing such laws that are not serving them. The New Mexico State Statutes give municipalities the authority and the legal vehicle to enact such ordinances.

 

Both state and federal government promote the “endless production of more” through the regulatory system of law, while exposing counties to corporate harm and denying them their rights to a local sustainable energy future, the rights to protect their ecosystems, the right to self-government and democracy.

 

Through the assistance of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) and its innovative educating and legal strategy, it became possible for Mora County citizens to collaboratively write this rights-based law. CELDF is a nonprofit public interest law firm that provides free legal services to communities working towards sustainable energy futures and self-governance.

The people became empowered to assert their rights to say “no” to state-assisted corporate fracking through CELDF’s Democracy School teaching, along with local educational forums by the grassroots organization Drilling Mora County. It became clear that neither the state and federal government nor corporations have the right to violate their rights—that birth rights are inherent to the living—and that asserting these rights was not only the duty of the people, but their right. And that true democracy is the right to say “no.”

 

Through the educational process, the nature of the problem was revealed: “We do not have a fracking problem, we have a democracy problem.” That the people “are being denied the fundamental right to self-government” in their own communities became clear and a guiding principle upon which the people began asserting their rights.

 

Currently five law firms from across the country have pledged their support to the Mora County Commission for the new “Bill of Rights.” Last month, the Mora County Commission retained Thomas Linzey, senior legal counsel, CELDF, to defend their local law. The law firm has agreed to provide pro bono representation to the County.

 

Today, Mora County joins with over 150 other communities across the country, including the City of Las Vegas, which passed a “Bill of Rights” banning fracking in 2012, the first in the Southwest, and the city of Pittsburgh, which passed its law in 2010. These communities are asserting their right to local self-governance through the adoption of local laws that seek to control corporate activities within their municipality.

 

In order to assert self-determination on the county level, the work goes well beyond passing a local ordinance. It requires that counties from across the state join in solidarity with Mora County and pass similar “Bills of Rights,” at which time a New Mexico State Constitutional Amendment can be passed to “write out” corporate personhood.

 

It takes local elected officials who will stand up for the rights of their citizens over complying with state-abetted and court-granted privileges of personhood assigned to corporations. That requires an unusual elected official who possesses courage and clarity of purpose. And it is happening.

 

 

Kathleen Dudley is the board chair for the New Mexico Coalition for Community Rights and the CELDF community rights organizer for New Mexico. kathleendudley@nmccr.org