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High court abstains on legislator fines

Says it has no authority in dispute on docking of pay

– The Indiana Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that it is inappropriate for the judicial branch to intervene in a dispute over legislative fines.

“The judicial branch must decline to pass judgment,” said the decision, which lets the fines and collection of them stand.

Chief Justice Brent Dickson authored the majority opinion, finding that the issuance and collection of fines as discipline are up to the legislative branch. Justice Mark Massa and Justice Steven David concurred.

Justice Loretta Rush and Justice Robert Rucker dissented.

The court heard oral arguments in the case in January and at that time urged mediation, though a compromise was never found.

The case centers on fines issued by House Speaker Brian Bosma to Democratic lawmakers who in 2011 and 2012 refused to come to the House chamber, which resulted in a lack of quorum to do business.

The Democrats didn’t contest the ability of Bosma to levy the fines, but they believed it was unlawful for State Auditor Tim Berry to unilaterally withhold the fines from the legislators’ expense pay. The amount at issue totals more than $100,000.

Mark GiaQuinta, who represented dozens of House Democrats, argued that Bosma and Berry should have followed the state law that other employers must follow and gone to court to receive a garnishment order.

“The 3-2 vote indicates the closeness of the issue and the complexity of the issue,” he said. “I understand this was a tough case and the majority disagreed with me, and that happens in this business.”

GiaQuinta said he will seek a rehearing of the ruling by the Indiana Supreme Court. He wants clarification on an issue that Tuesday’s decision did not address – the automatic reduction of lawmakers’ pensions when their per diem pay was docked.

The Indiana Attorney General’s Office represented Bosma in the case and contended that the fines are an internal legislative matter over which courts have no jurisdiction.

The 25-page ruling said “when 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 non-justiciable and the doctrine of separation of powers precludes judicial consideration of the claims for relief.”

Attorney General Greg Zoeller praised the ruling.

“The separation of powers is a central pillar of constitutional law. … We are pleased that the Supreme Court recognized constitutional limits and held that the judicial branch cannot interfere with the internal management of the legislative branch and that the people’s elected representatives in the legislature must resolve such disputes among themselves,” he said.

Bosma called the ruling a victory for proponents of limited government “and consider the matter closed. I am glad that we can put this issue behind us and continue our work for the state in a bipartisan manner.”

Rucker said in his dissent that the case isn’t about the legislature’s ability to discipline its members, including fines. Instead, it’s about collection. He found that the wage payment statute applies squarely to the facts of the case.

“The House’s constitutionally granted legislative discretion to punish its members does not include the discretion to reduce its members’ compensation. Defendants’ actions are in direct conflict with Article 4, Section 29 of the Indiana Constitution,” Rucker said.

The House Democrat caucus did not comment on the case. Instead, Indiana Democratic Chairman John Zody sent out an email saying free speech isn’t free.

“The fines were nothing but a monetary power grab to show complete Republican dominance,” he said. “That’s what these folks do, and we have to make sure we work hard to elect Democrats next year to restore our voice at the Statehouse.

“Otherwise, we’ll continue to live in a state where Republicans run roughshod over the middle class – and everyone who speaks up on their behalf.”

nkelly@jg.net

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