INDIANAPOLIS – House Democrats who had to pay more than $100,000 in fines after they walked out of the Indiana Statehouse two years ago won’t get the help they sought from the Indiana Supreme Court.
On Tuesday, the state’s high court ruled in a 3-2 split decision that it would be inappropriate for the judicial branch to invade the authority of the Legislature in the fines dispute, which started when the Democrats fled the state in 2011 to protest a contentious “right to work” bill.
The ruling found that the GOP leaders had the constitutional authority both to compel legislators’ attendance during the session and collect a fine levied against those who don’t comply.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent Dickson wrote the majority opinion: “For courts to get involved in such a legislative function would amount to the type of ‘constitutionally impermissible judicial interference with the internal operations of the legislative branch” which we have rejected in the past.”
Justices Loretta Rush and Robert Rucker dissented in part, saying that while House leaders had the authority to impose the fines, they didn’t have the authority to order the fines withheld from legislators’ pay. Rucker, in his dissenting opinion, said the high court’s decision to set a broad hands-off test for staying out of legislative matters could have impact well beyond internal disputes.
“We have never adopted such a test, which in my view would effectively preclude review of almost any legislative act,” he wrote.
In January, after hearing arguments in the case brought by House Democrats, the court had urged House leaders to resolve the matter internally. But no compromise was ever struck.
The dispute centers on fines levied by Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma against House Democrats in 2011 and again in 2012, after they refused to show up on the House floor. In doing so, they left the legislative body without a quorum and unable to do business.
House Democrats later filed suit against state Auditor Tim Berry, a Republican, who collected most of the $113,498 fines by withholding money from legislators’ paychecks. The Democrats didn’t challenge Bosma’s ability to levy the fines, but argued it was unlawful for Berry to withhold the fines from the legislators’ pay.
A lower court sided with the Democrats, but the ruling issued Tuesday by the state Supreme Court overturns that decision.
Bosma released a statement Tuesday, saying he was pleased with the court’s decision that “properly respected the separation of powers and the rights of the legislative branch to manage its own internal affairs without interference from the judicial branch.
“I consider this a victory for the Indiana Constitution and the proponents of limited government, and consider the matter closed. I am glad that we can put this issue behind us and continue our work for the state in a bipartisan manner.”
House Democrats had no official response to the ruling. Minority Leader Scott Pelath, a Michigan City Democrat who came to power on a wave of discontent by Democrats over the walkouts, declined comment.
Longtime House Democrat Clyde Kersey of Terre Haute said he was disappointed but not surprised by the high court’s ruling.
“We did what we had to do,” Kersey said of the 2011 and 2012 walkouts. He said the fines “were part of the consequences of our decision.”
The 2011 boycott that started the court fight stalled a “right to work” bill that bars employers from requiring workers to enter into union contracts. But the legislation was revived in 2012 and passed, despite another round of protests from Democrats and their labor supporters.
House Democrats paid more than just a financial penalty for their actions. Polls showed Hoosier voters disapproved of the 2011 and 2012 walkouts. And in the 2012 election, Republicans swept the Indiana House and Senate races, sending super-majorities to both chambers and giving the GOP enough votes to create quorums of their own.
Former House Minority Leader Patrick Bauer, a South Bend Democrat who led the 2010 and 2011 walkouts, also lost his leadership position after House Democrats toppled him in a political coup.
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.