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Holcomb wins lawsuit against legislators over emergency powers law

Indiana Republican Governor Eric Holcomb smiles at an outdoor event in Zionsville, Indiana. The photo is a closeup of Holcomb from the shoulders up, largely in profile, as he looks to the right, off-camera.
Brandon Smith
/
IPB News
Gov. Eric Holcomb won his lawsuit against the Indiana General Assembly over an emergency powers law.

Gov. Eric Holcomb has won his lawsuit against the Indiana General Assembly over an emergency powers law.

Republican lawmakers were frustrated in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic’s early days. They felt sidelined and disagreed with many of the governor’s decisions.

So, they wrote a law, HEA 1123, that allowed them to call themselves into special session during a public emergency, without the governor’s approval. Under the measure, calling that “emergency” session requires a resolution by the Legislative Council, a 16-member committee made up of legislative leaders.

Holcomb sued, arguing that the Indiana Constitution gives the governor the sole power to call a special session.

A county judge sided with lawmakers last year. But the Indiana Supreme Court largely agreed with Holcomb.

In a unanimous decision, Chief Justice Loretta Rush wrote HEA 1123 is unconstitutional. And that comes largely from the difference between a law – passed by both houses and, typically, signed by the governor – and a resolution, which is only approved by that Legislative Council.

Rush said lawmakers can call themselves into a special session, but they must pass a law to do so during their regular session. The ruling said a special session triggered by a Legislative Council resolution – as would be the case under HEA 1123 – violates the state constitution.

In a statement, the Indiana Democratic Party said the loser in this legal battle are taxpayers, who had to foot the bill for the lawsuit. The party accused Republicans of "extremism," arguing they continually pursue, "unpopular policies at the Statehouse."

In a statement, Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita – who had sided with the legislature throughout the lawsuit – sharply criticized the Supreme Court and its decision.

"The court became a legislature today by overriding the intent of those who are directly elected by the people,” Rokita said in the statement.

Rokita also encouraged lawmakers to find a new way to call themselves into a special session.

Unlike Rokita, House Speaker Todd Huston (R-Fishers) and Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray (R-Martinsville) expressed respect for the Supreme Court's decision, with Bray saying he was disappointed with the outcome.

Holcomb's celebration of the decision was muted. Throughout the lawsuit, the governor had been careful not to criticize or antagonize legislative leaders. In his statement Friday, Holcomb said he appreciated "the patience and humility" shown by Huston and Bray.

"From the beginning, this case presented important procedural, statutory and Constitutional questions that only the courts could answer,” Holcomb said in a statement. “Today, the Indiana Supreme Court has provided clarity and finality on these important issues."

Contact reporter Brandon at bsmith@ipbs.org or follow him on Twitter at @brandonjsmith5.