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Court upholds Indiana legislative boycott fines

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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."

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  • Fines Circumvent the Minority's Implied right to Deny Quorum
    The state constitution also does not say that the majority has a right to quorum, nor that the minority is required to allow them quorum. In fact, denial of quorum has been a parliamentary maneuver since the establishment of the first parliaments in the early 1600s. The right to deny quorum (and the requirement fore quorum) are to prevent exactly what happened in Indiana: A tyrannical majority pushing through odious, objectionable legislation. Denial of quorum is totally legitimate, and lest we forget, a tactic the GOP has employed many, many times to ensure their issues weren't given short shrift. By allowing the majority to impose "fines" on the minority for exercising the authority the constitution grants them (to deny quorum,) they are violating the constitution.
  • What a bunch of whiners.
    The fact is that fining members who refuse to attend isn't mentioned in the Indiana Constitution at all, so it is hardly unconstitutional. Would you pay an employee if he or she unilaterally up and decided to take a month's vacation? These people are OUR employees. They were AWOL and they should not be rewarded for being so.
    • These Fines are Unconstitutional
      As near as I can tell the minority has ZERO constitutional obligation to offer a quorum to the majority. A requirement for quorum was inserted into the constitution so that tyrannical majorities could not simply shove through odious and objectionable legislation (which is exactly what they did.) By allowing a tyrannical majority to charge fines against the minority for exercising their constitutional prerogative to deny quorum the court as made a mockery of constitutional governance in the state of Indiana.
    • Dupree
      The voters elected the Reps to make a vote not walk out on the vote. They had to the right to exercise their opinion and vote "no" to the bill. Let me ask you this if you walked out of your job for 5 straight weeks would you get paid? Would you even have a job to go back to? If any elected official walks out on the people they should be arrested for stealing tax dollars from the public. They were elected to do a job and not leave when the job gets stuff.
    • Then in theory, Republicans can randomly fine Democrates for being Democrates?
      This is a poor decision. The right to protest, from per-revolunatary tea parties through Vietnam "conflict" need protection from government officials who want to fine and jail all those who don't follow their marching orders. In this case, we had an elected governor who campaigned that he did not see a need for anti-worker (given the name "right to work") legislation. After the election, Mitch sold out to chamber of commence and business requests. Fighting for the voters and honest government is a justifiable act by those who walked out. Sadly, our courts also follow only the requests of big business. Too many elitist appointed by Mitch.

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