The Indiana Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld fines levied by House Republicans against Democratic lawmakers for their 2011 walkout and 2012 boycotts in a series of bitterly partisan fights over right-to-work legislation.
The court, split 3-2, found that the constitutional separation of powers bars the courts from interfering in internal legislative decisions. The state's highest court approved a request that the case be dismissed.
Chief Justice Brent Dickson wrote for the majority that it is not the court's role to assess punishments within the legislative branch of government.
"We hold that when, as here, the Indiana Constitution expressly assigns certain functions to the legislative branch without any contrary constitutional qualification or limitation, challenges to the exercise of such legislative powers are nonjusticiable and the doctrine of separation of powers precludes judicial consideration of the claims for relief, and the defendants' request for dismissal of the plaintiffs' claims should have been granted in full," Dickson wrote.
Justices Loretta Rush and Robert Rucker dissented, saying the House's "discretion to punish its members" doesn't include the ability to withhold pay. Rucker said the high court's decision to set a broad hands-off test for staying out of legislative matters could stretch well beyond internal fights.
"We have never adopted such a test, which in my view would effectively preclude review of almost any legislative act," he wrote.
Majority House Republicans ordered the state auditor to withhold the fines from Democrats who spent weeks at an Illinois hotel to protest sweeping changes in the state's education system and a ban on mandatory union fees, via right-to-work measures. Although Indiana state lawmakers lack a filibuster, Democrats were able to block action by denying the Republicans the numbers needed to achieve a quorum.
Then-Rep. Bill Crawford, D-Indianapolis, filed suit after the state withheld $3,000 from his paycheck. Republicans later assessed $1,000-a-day fines on Democrats who boycotted the Legislature in 2012 in opposition of a right-to-work ban on mandatory union fees.
Mark GiaQuinta, lawyer for the House Democrats, did not immediately return a call seeking comment. House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, declined comment through a spokesman. Pelath won his new seat leading the minority Democrats following the ouster last year of then-House Minority Leader Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend.
House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said he considers the issue settled with Tuesday's ruling.
"I am very pleased that the Supreme Court 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," he said in a statement. "I consider this a victory for the Indiana Constitution and the proponents of limited government, and consider the matter closed."