Indiana House Democrats got a boost Thursday when a judge temporarily blocked the collection of $1,000-a-day fines imposed on them for their legislative boycott over the contentious right-to-work bill, and their leader said they might return to the House chamber Friday to vote.
The temporary injunction from Marion County Judge David Dreyer covers three Democratic representatives who have challenged the authority of the House leadership to deduct the fines from their state paychecks.
The judge's order came hours after most of the 40 House Democrats skipped an attempt by majority Republicans to hold a House session, leaving it for a third day with too few members to begin the scheduled debate on proposed amendments to the bill.
House Democratic leader Patrick Bauer said the party's lawyers were working to find a way to hold a voter referendum despite questions over whether it is allowed under the state Constitution.
"We are doing this so the people have a voice and they have a constitutionally approved opportunity to have a referendum," Bauer said.
Bauer said the proposal could be prepared as soon as Friday, possibly clearing the way for the 35 absent Democrats to return to the House floor and allowing action on the right-to-work bill and other legislation.
The Democrats' court challenge centers on the legality of the fines being deducted from their pay, not whether those fines could be imposed. Republican leaders maintain how they've handled the fines is legal and that the courts don't have the authority to intervene in the Legislature's inner workings.
"We're a separate branch of government, some people haven't figured that out," Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma said.
Attorney General Greg Zoeller, whose office is representing House Republicans and the state, echoed Bosma.
"The order is unfortunate and is a textbook example of why we have separate branches of government and why courts should not allow the judicial system to be used as a legislative tactic during the heat of the session," Zoeller said in a statement Thursday night.
Bosma tried to gavel the House into order twice on Thursday and said he hadn't had any communication with Democratic leaders about their return.
The right-to-work bill will be debated Friday regardless, since state Senate leaders decided to move up their scheduled plans for debating and voting on proposed amendments to the measure.
The injunction covers Democrats Shelli VanDenburgh of Crown Point and Vanessa Summers of Indianapolis, who filed a lawsuit after majority Republicans voted Wednesday to start imposing the fines. It also covers Bill Crawford of Indianapolis, who sued over the collection of smaller fines from last year's boycott.
Bauer said he expects other boycotting Democrats to join the suit, possibly including himself.
Republican Senate President Pro Tem David Long said House Democrats are giving flimsy excuses for their boycott and that he agreed with an analysis by legislative lawyers that the state constitution doesn't allow statewide voter referendums except on constitutional amendments.
"A simple legal analysis by a law student could have figured that out in no time," Long said. "Read your constitution, it's in black and white."
House Democratic leaders maintain that the constitutional question is being used as a defense by wavering Republicans for voting against the referendum proposal.
"We're eliminating the excuse," said Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City.
Long said the Senate — where Republicans hold a commanding 37-13 majority — would start debating its version of the right-to-work bill on Friday, after saying earlier Thursday that the Senate wouldn't act until next week. He said that Republican senators decided to take up the bill sooner since House Democrats hadn't committed to returning.
The outnumbered Senate Democrats can't block action with a similar boycott, but also plan to seek the voter referendum that House Democrats have advocated. Senate Minority Leader Vi Simpson, D-Bloomington, said she expected most Democrats would oppose a proposal by a Republican senator to exempt construction trades unions from the bill.
"Divide and conquer is very old wartime concept and we're not in favor of dividing the opponents and conquering them in that way," Simpson said.