UNM law students assist land grants and acequias with legal assistance

The Community Governance Lawyers Program, established in 2019, helps acequias and land grants when they need legal assistance by pairing them with law students.

Elisabeth Gutierrez de Las Cruces and Victoria Lovato de Ojo Caliente are third-year students at the University of New Mexico School of Law participating in the Lawyers in Community Governance program.

Program participants presented the progress of the community governance advocates program at the October 20 land grant committee meeting in Chilili.

“Today is a very special day because it is a program that took years of work from the (Land Grants Committee) to bring to fruition,” said Mark Edwards of the Legislative Council Service of the New Mexico. “These two students are the very first student lawyers (in the program).”

Both student lawyers have backgrounds in land grants and acequias.

“All my life I’ve heard it all about land grants: the good, the bad, the laughter in the tears and it has taught me a deep love of history and a deep love for my community,” said said Lovato. “I studied history and Spanish at New Mexico State University and when I got to law school I was really hoping for the opportunity to be guided to my passion and I think that ( program) was just that.”

Lovato has a year-long internship with New Mexico Supreme Court Justice David K. Thompson, who will delay her entry into legal aid.

“I’m excited to take this knowledge and skills that I’m acquiring and use it for the betterment of my community,” Lovato said. “I am very honored to be part of this program and very honored to be here today.”

Gutierrez’s family is originally from the Tularosa region and they moved around, especially growing up in colonial communities.

“I grew up with many different communities and wanted to be part of the land grant program because I first went to law school to help with water issues and water law” , Gutierrez said. “I decided going to law school would be a better way to do it.”

Gutierrez studied agricultural economics at New Mexico State University before entering law school.

“I’m really excited to start,” Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez begins his tenure with legal aid in the spring of 2023.

Adrian Oglesby, director of the Community Governance Attorney Program, was unable to attend the Land Grant Committee meeting.

The program was established by statute in 2019 to provide legal services to acequias, land grants-mercedes and low-income residents of colonias.

The Land Grant Committee has worked to establish the Community Governance Attorney Program since before 2014 through meetings with the University of New Mexico School of Law, Edwards said.

The Community Governance Attorney Act also provides a tuition waiver for participants and creates a fund and commission.

Legally, the New Mexico Legislature cannot establish a scholarship program.

“These students sign a contract (stating) that they will work for legal aid on behalf of land grants, acequias and colonias for two years after law school,” Edwards said. “They’re going to be paid regardless of the legal aid entry minimum wage and in exchange for that, the state is waiving tuition and all other fees for their third year of law school.”

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