Indiana emergency powers lawsuit faces challenges

IN Focus: Indiana Politics

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita is trying to block Governor Eric Holcomb’s lawsuit against the General Assembly.

Indiana’s constitution says the governor has the power to call a special legislative session. However, it doesn’t say whether the General Assembly can or can’t. So, legislators passed a law allowing them to bring themselves back to the Statehouse during a public emergency.

The governor vetoed it, saying it was unconstitutional. Lawmakers voted to override him. Now, he is suing the General Assembly to get the matter settled in court.

“Ultimately, courts are the ones who say what the constitutions mean in our system,” said Beth Cate, a constitutional law expert at Indiana University.

Attorney General Rokita wants to stop this lawsuit from getting to that point. During an interview with us in November, Rokita expressed his support for lawmakers to be able to call themselves into session during an emergency.

“What’s important to understand here is that our emergency declaration law, which is being used for these different executive orders, was never meant for a pandemic that has lasted as long as this,” said Rokita at the time. “So, under our constitution, the leaders who are most accountable to the taxpayers, voters and citizens of this state are found in the legislative branch, our General Assembly.”

The governor’s office asked Rokita’s permission to hire outside counsel for the lawsuit. He denied it and is trying to block the lawsuit instead. Rokita stresses this litigation would set a precedent for branches to sue one another at the expense of taxpayers over abstract disagreements.

However, Cate said that’s not what’s happening here.

“This lawsuit involves a very rare situation in which the governor is saying the legislature effectively rewrote the constitution to give itself one of the governor’s exclusive powers,” said Cate.

It’s not like anyone can sue over the constitutionality of this law, said Cate, who emphasized they have to have proven standing that they’re directly impacted, and the governor has that.

“I think the governor just goes ahead and responds to the motion that’s been filed by the Attorney General,” said Cate.

Rokita also pointed out the constitution doesn’t allow lawmakers to be involved in a lawsuit during session. Due to redistricting, lawmakers have yet to officially adjourn. So, it’ll be up to the courts to determine if that will lead to a delay in deciding on the lawsuit.

We reached out to both Governor Holcomb’s office and AG Rokita, but neither were available for interviews or statements Monday.

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