Indiana’s attorney general argues in new legal filings that the governor is wrongly trying to use the courts to expand his powers with a lawsuit challenging the authority state legislators have given themselves to intervene during public emergencies.
Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb asked a judge last month to block the new law passed by the GOP-dominated Legislature following criticism from many conservatives over the statewide mask mandate and other COVID-19 restrictions that Holcomb imposed by executive orders.
Attorney General Todd Rokita, also a Republican and past Holcomb rival, claims in court documents filed late Monday that he is within his legal authority to turn down Holcomb’s request to take the dispute to court after the Legislature overrode the governor’s veto of the new law. His office’s court filing repeatedly calls the governor’s lawyers “unauthorized counsel” in asking for them to be removed from the case.
“A lawsuit by the Governor against legislators to invalidate a law enacted over the Governor’s veto amounts to a demand for a ‘super’ veto via the judiciary,” the attorney general’s court filing said. “It is no small thing for one branch of government to drag another branch of government to account before the third branch of government. No constitutional provision secures to officials of any branch such extraordinary power.”
Holcomb’s lawyers argued last week that Rokita was making “absurd” arguments that he alone has the legal authority to represent the state in court and can decide whether the new law is constitutional.
John Trimble, Holcomb’s lead lawyer with the Indianapolis firm Lewis Wagner, referred questions Tuesday to the governor’s office, which didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment.
The governor and some legal experts maintain the state constitution doesn't allow the new process under which legislative leaders could call the General Assembly into what it calls an “emergency session.” The governor’s lawsuit argues that the Legislature is “usurping a power given exclusively to the governor” under the state constitution to call lawmakers into a special session.
The Marion County judge handling the case hasn’t yet set any hearings or indicated when a ruling might be issued.
Rokita sought the Republican nomination to run for governor in 2016 but lost to Holcomb and is widely seen as wanting to succeed the term-limited governor after the 2024 election. He said during last year’s election campaign that he supported curtailing the governor’s emergency powers and he didn’t defend Holcomb from criticism of his coronavirus restrictions.
The attorney general’s latest filing renewed the argument that Holcomb’s against legislators isn’t allowed to proceed now under state law because the General Assembly technically is still in session despite concluding its regular business for the year on April 22. That’s because lawmakers extended the deadline for this year’s legislative session from April 29 until Nov. 15 because of delays in receiving census data so they can approve new congressional and legislative election districts.
Rokita’s office is asking the judge to delay the case for at least 30 days after the Legislature adjourns even if it is allowed to proceed.