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June 20, 2013

Court lets walkout fines against House Democrats stand

Split decision says authority stays with legislature.

INDIANAPOLIS – House Democrats who had to pay more than $100,000 in fines after they walked out of the Indiana Statehouse two years ago won’t get the help they sought from the Indiana Supreme Court.

On Tuesday, the state’s high court ruled in a 3-2 split decision that it would be inappropriate for the judicial branch to invade the authority of the legislature in the fines dispute, which started when the Democrats fled the state in 2011 to protest a contentious “right to work” bill.

The ruling found that the GOP leaders had the constitutional authority both to compel legislators’ attendance during the session and collect a fine levied against those who don’t comply.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent Dickson wrote the majority opinion: “For courts to get involved in such a legislative function would amount to the type of ‘constitutionally impermissible judicial interference with the internal operations of the legislative branch’ which we have rejected in the past.”

Justices Loretta Rush and Robert Rucker dissented in part, saying that while House leaders had the authority to impose the fines, they didn’t have the authority to order the fines withheld from legislators’ pay. Rucker, in his dissenting opinion, said the high court’s decision to set a broad hands-off test for staying out of legislative matters could have impact well beyond internal disputes.

“We have never adopted such a test, which in my view would effectively preclude review of almost any legislative act,” he wrote.

In January, after hearing arguments in the case brought by House Democrats, the court had urged House leaders to resolve the matter internally. But no compromise was ever struck.

The dispute centers on fines levied by Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma against House Democrats in 2011 and again in 2012 after they refused to show up on the House floor. In doing so, they left the legislative body without a quorum and unable to do business.

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