INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana’s governor asked a court Tuesday to block a new law that legislators passed giving themselves more authority to intervene when the state’s chief executive declares an emergency.
Lawyers for Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb filed a lawsuit in Marion County court challenging the law that the Republican-dominated Legislature enacted 12 days earlier over his veto. The Republican state attorney general, however, indicated he could try to sideline the court fight in favor of the Legislature.
The measure establishes a new process under which legislative leaders can call the General Assembly into what it calls an “emergency session.” The governor’s lawsuit argues that the Legislature is “usurping a power given exclusively to the governor” under the Indiana Constitution to call lawmakers into a special session.
“This controversy must be resolved as soon as possible or the consequences could be severe, including disruption to Indiana and the proper functioning of state government — something that concerns every Hoosier,” the lawsuit said.
Republican legislators pushed the bill after criticism from many conservatives over the mask mandate and other COVID-19 restrictions that Holcomb imposed by executive order with the General Assembly not meeting for about nine months after its 2020 session ended. Similar debates are occurring in states across the country.
Republican legislative leaders have said they expected a court challenge to the emergency session plan. They’ve maintained that the measure wasn’t “anti-governor” and have praised Holcomb’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which health officials say has killed more than 13,000 people in the state.
Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray and House Speaker Todd Huston, who are both named as defendants in the lawsuit, said in statements that Holcomb has been clear on his intent to challenge the new law.
“We are in consultation with the Indiana Attorney General’s Office on what the next steps will be in this matter,” Huston said.
Holcomb’s lawsuit argues that any use of the law would be disruptive and that the measure causes “uncertainty and confusion over the constitutional powers of the Executive and Legislative Branches.”
“I took an oath to uphold the Constitution of the State of Indiana and I have an obligation do so,” Holcomb said in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “This filing is about the future of the executive branch and all the governors who will serve long after I’m gone.”
The lawsuit could be challenged on procedural grounds as state law gives the attorney general’s office authority over lawsuits filed on behalf of state agencies.
Attorney General Todd Rokita, who was a rival to Holcomb for the 2016 Republican nomination for governor, said during last year’s election campaign that he supported curtailing the governor’s emergency powers and avoided defending Holcomb from conservative critics of his coronavirus restrictions.
Rokita said in a statement that he denied the governor’s request to hire private lawyers for the case, saying he was fulfilling a key function of his office to set “a single, unified legal position for the State as a whole.”
Holcomb spokeswoman Rachel Hoffmeyer said the governor’s office went ahead without Rokita’s consent because “we believe under the unique circumstance of this situation, that his approval is not necessary.”
Rokita’s statement didn’t specify whether he believed the new law was constitutional. In response to that question, Rokita spokeswoman McKenzie Barbknecht said, “That will become evident in the next several days.”
Former state Supreme Court Justice Frank Sullivan, who spent 19 years on the court after being a top staffer for Democratic Gov. Evan Bayh, is among the legal experts who have questioned the Legislature’s action. Sullivan said he believed the state's high court would likely find that the Legislature’s procedure is unconstitutional.
The Legislature’s powers include authority to terminate emergency orders issued by the governor. Numerous Republican lawmakers sponsored such resolutions during this year’s session, but legislative leaders didn’t advance any of them for votes before the regular legislative session ended last week.
Republican Sen. Sue Glick of LaGrange, who sponsored the new law, said Holcomb acted without legislative input in imposing restrictions on the state’s 6.7 million residents. Glick argued during the legislative session that shouldn’t happen during such long-lasting emergencies.
“We’re not attempting to hold government hostage,” Glick said. “What we’re trying to do is get our seat at the table to be involved in the decision-making process, not be precluded from participation.”