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Indiana court rejects bid to stall governor’s powers suit

August 27, 2021 GMT
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb speaks during a bill signing ceremony at the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy in Plainfield, Ind., Monday, Aug. 16, 2021. Holcomb told reporters afterward that he supported the growing number of Indiana school districts issuing mask mandates for students and staff as they try to head off more COVID-19 outbreaks. (AP Photo/Tom Davies)
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb speaks during a bill signing ceremony at the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy in Plainfield, Ind., Monday, Aug. 16, 2021. Holcomb told reporters afterward that he supported the growing number of Indiana school districts issuing mask mandates for students and staff as they try to head off more COVID-19 outbreaks. (AP Photo/Tom Davies)
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb speaks during a bill signing ceremony at the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy in Plainfield, Ind., Monday, Aug. 16, 2021. Holcomb told reporters afterward that he supported the growing number of Indiana school districts issuing mask mandates for students and staff as they try to head off more COVID-19 outbreaks. (AP Photo/Tom Davies)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana’s governor can go ahead with a lawsuit challenging the increased power state legislators gave themselves to intervene during public health emergencies, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday.

The justices issued a one-page order saying they voted 4-1 to reject arguments for blocking Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb’s pursuit of the lawsuit with private lawyers representing him.

It was the second time this month the court denied motions from Republican Attorney General Todd Rokita’s office that the lawsuit shouldn’t be allowed to proceed at this time because of the state constitution’s ban on individual legislators being subject to civil court action during legislative sessions.

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Holcomb’s lawsuit argues a law passed in April over his veto by the Republican-dominated General Assembly is unconstitutional because it gives lawmakers a new power to call themselves into a special legislative “emergency session” during statewide emergencies declared by the governor.

The Supreme Court’s ruling comes as Marion County Judge Patrick Dietrick has scheduled a Sept. 10 hearing on the lawsuit’s merits.

Holcomb and some legal experts maintain the Indiana Constitution allows only the governor to call the General Assembly into special session after its annual session ends. Republican legislators advanced the law following criticism from many conservatives over a statewide mask mandate and other COVID-19 restrictions that Holcomb imposed by executive orders.

Joe Heerens, general counsel for the governor’s office, said in a statement that the Supreme Court’s ruling allows the lawsuit to proceed “without delay” and that he looked forward to Holcomb’s case being presented to the judge.

The attorney general’s office criticized the Supreme Court for not following what it said was “the plain text of both the Indiana Constitution and state statute” of when legislators can be forced to respond to lawsuits.

“Ignoring that protection sets a dangerous legal precedent, seemingly inconsistent with the rule of law,” Rokita said in a statement.

Dietrick ruled in July against Rokita’s arguments regarding legislative immunity. The judge also rejected the attorney general’s claims that he alone has the authority to represent the state in court and can decide whether the new law is allowed under the state constitution. Dietrick ruled that Rokita — who unsuccessfully challenged Holcomb for the 2016 Republican nomination for governor — cannot “unilaterally block” the governor from taking actions to defend his constitutional powers.

The General Assembly typically would have formally adjourned this year in late April. However, it remains legally in session awaiting meetings expected in late September to vote on the redrawing of congressional and legislative election districts because of delays in receiving census data for that work.

Holcomb’s lawyers argued that the Legislature isn’t “currently ‘convened’ at the Statehouse for any purpose whatsoever, let alone to undertake what is traditionally considered ‘legislating’ activity.”