Indiana Supreme Court weighing dispute over emergency law

A nearly year-long legal battle between Gov. Eric Holcomb and Republican lawmakers got its day in Indiana’s high court Thursday.

The Indiana Supreme Court heard oral arguments from both parties’ attorneys over the merits of who has the constitutional right to call a special session.

Holcomb filed the lawsuit against lawmakers nearly a year ago, after the Legislature overrode his veto of  House Enrolled Act 1123, which gave the General Assembly the power to call themselves into a special session during a declared state of emergency. Holcomb has argued that the Indiana Constitution gives that power exclusively to the governor.

The legislature had won the first round in court,  as a trial judge ruled in its favor, saying the law does not violate the constitution. Holcomb appealed the decision and asked the Supreme Court to take the case.

Richard Blaiklock, representing Holcomb, maintained the argument that the governor has the sole authority to call lawmakers into a special session, and if lawmakers wanted to change that, they must pass a constitutional amendment.

He also noted that the law could cause confusion on government powers for future emergencies.

The Legislature, represented by the Indiana Attorney General’s Office, had countered that 1970 and 1984 amendments to the Indiana Constitution removed the limitations on the General Assembly’s sessions. The amendments gave authority to the General Assembly to set the length and frequency of sessions.

Solicitor General Thomas Fisher said on Thursday that the Legislature has already been meeting outside of its regular session for decades without being called upon by the governor, citing the annual technical corrections day following each session and Organization Day.

Justices questioned both attorneys on the constitutionality of a technical corrections session, in relation to the argument that the governor has to call in the Legislature for a session outside of their regular annual session at the beginning of the year. Fisher said no one has ever questioned the legality of the technical corrections day, which typically takes place more than two months after the annual General Assembly ends.

Blaiklock argued technical corrections day is a furtherance from the regular session. Chief Justice Loretta Rush then noted that lawmakers could choose to stay in session longer to avoid needing the governor to call them back, and Blaiklock agreed.

Also at issue were questions as to whether Holcomb, as governor, had the right to sue the Legislature over the constitutionality of the law in the first place. Fisher had argued on Thursday that Holcomb, as a state official, does not have the right to sue over the law, but Holcomb, as a citizen, does. Justices questioned Fisher’s reasoning, with Justice Geoffrey Slaughter calling his theory “astonishing.”

Attorney General Todd Rokita, after Holcomb first filed the lawsuit, had tried and failed to block the suit, arguing that Holcomb could not file a suit without his permission.

Blaiklock on Thursday argued that the governor has a fundamental right to ensure laws are constitutional.

The Supreme Court has no deadline in releasing a decision on the case.

Legislators advanced the law last year following criticism from conservatives over the statewide mask mandate and other COVID-19 restrictions that Holcomb imposed by executive order.

Holcomb ended the statewide COVID-19 public health emergency declaration early last month —nearly two years after he first issued it — once lawmakers approved administrative steps protecting enhanced federal funding for Medicaid and food assistance. Holcomb had ended any statewide mask mandates or business restrictions in spring 2021.

Republican legislative leaders have maintained that the “emergency session” measure wasn’t “anti-governor” and praised Holcomb’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which health officials say has killed some 23,000 people in the state since March 2020.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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