INDIANAPOLIS – A court battle is brewing at the Statehouse, and its implications would undoubtedly affect every community in Indiana.
The Indiana legislature is at odds with Gov. Eric Holcomb and his response to the pandemic, which is no surprise, but now state Attorney General Todd Rokita has joined the fray.
This year after the Republican-majority House and Senate jammed through House Bill 1123, a law that would allow the legislature to call an emergency session of the Indiana General Assembly, Holcomb promised to file a lawsuit challenging the new law on its constitutionality, resulting in a recent firework show pitting two powerful public officials against each other.
Both Rokita and Holcomb are digging their heels in on their positions. Holcomb is pointing at the Indiana Constitution’s provision that defines when legislative sessions can be held, while Rokita has vowed to not fund any lawsuit brought by Holcomb, arguing that Holcomb can’t bring a lawsuit without his permission since he’s the lead attorney for the state.
This court case is especially interesting given the roles of both men on either side of the battle. Both are elected by the people, and both reserve special privileges and independence to do their jobs. This makes for a very political court case, one where both sides are representing a different set of voters who put them in power.
Rokita argues that it is his job to speak for the state in court and that Indiana case law says state officeholders can’t ask the courts to weigh in on the constitutionality of statutes, according to Indiana Public Media reports, saying Holcomb’s use of private attorneys without authorization “[erodes] the state’s defenses.”
While it is unclear how the court will navigate this fight since there are a lot of questions being raised, one thing is certain: it could have been avoided completely, and it will cost taxpayers money.
The 1970 Amendment to the Indiana Constitution gives specific instructions on how the time and place of regular sessions of the Indiana General Assembly can be set, and it only references the governor’s ability to declare a special session. It is hard to believe that law passed by the legislature can grant itself the power to call a special session on its own.
Legal experts, including a former Indiana Supreme Court justice, have sided with Holcomb, saying the Constitution is clear about what branch of government can convene the legislature for a special session. That doesn’t mean this case is clear cut, but it does call into question the viability of the law.
A governing body should not be able to create a law that allows it to take over the power of another branch as described by the state Constitution, so Holcomb’s arguments seem to hold weight.
Rather than ignore the suit until the Indiana General Assembly exercises its new power, as Rokita suggests, the court should weigh in on this before the next emergency, whether it be another pandemic or not, in order to ensure our state’s government can act swiftly to respond to any threat that may arise in the future.
While Indiana courts may not weigh in on the constitutionality of every law passed in a given year, this case is unique and warrants a review since it involves emergency response procedures. The last thing taxpayers and Hoosier citizens need is a complicated court case clogging up the system when lives or welfare are at stake.
There are checks and balances in place to react to an abuse of a governor’s use of emergency powers, whether it be the courts or at the voting booth. In this instance, a law that creates a clear issue in regards to people’s roles and abilities during an emergency situation deserves to be sorted out as well.
This article was made available by the Hoosier State Press Association.