Supreme Court Upholds Fines Against House Dems in Walkouts
3-2 majority: Courts barred from interfering in legislative affairs
The half-empty Indiana House chamber during a Democratic walkout in 2012. (WIBC.com file photo: Eric Berman)
The Indiana Supreme Court has let stand the fines levied against House Democrats for bringing the legislature to a halt with walkouts in the 2011 and 2012 sessions.
A 3-2 majority says the House has exclusive authority to conduct internal legislative affairs, including the right to compel attendance and the disciplining of members. Chief Justice Brent Dickson says it would violate the separation of powers doctrine for the court to step in. He says the court can only intervene if there's specific constitutional authority to do so.
Democrats had argued the House was an employer like any other, and subject to the state law prohibiting employers from docking workers’ pay.
Democrats fled to Illinois for nearly five weeks in 2011 to prevent a quorum in the House, in an attempt to block right-to-work legislation and an assortment of other labor and education bills. Legislative leaders and then-Gov. Mitch Daniels quickly pulled the right-to-work bill off the table in response, but rammed it through the following year after a second, shorter round of Democratic walkouts.
The legislative strikes became an issue in the 2012 elections, in which Republicans gained nine House seats for a walkout-proof majority.
The two years' worth of fines reached more than $6,000 for most members. The exact amounts vary because a rotating cast of legislators made occasional appearances in the House for procedural reasons. In addition, Jeffersonville Representative Steven Stemler refused to participate in the walkouts and was not fined, while four Democrats joined him in 2012 after leaving the state in 2011. And at least three Democrats had some of their absences excused because of illness.
Then-Indianapolis Representative William Crawford sued after the second round of walkouts and fines in 2012. Marion Superior Judge David Dreyer had upheld the House's right to levy the fines, but agreed with Crawford that collecting them by deducting the money from legislators' checks was illegal. Justice Loretta Rush adopted similar reasoning in dissenting from Tuesday's ruling.
Justice Robert Rucker also dissented, saying the entire imposition of fines was improper.
Crawford says he knew the legislature's authority as a separate branch of government presented an uphill climb for the lawsuit, but says he felt allowing the docking of paychecks would set a dangerous precedent. But he says the walkouts represented a rare set of circumstances that may not recur for a long time.
House Speaker Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis) was unavailable for comment beyond a written statement calling the ruling "a victory for the Indiana Constitution and the proponents of limited government," and saying it's time for the legislature to "put this issue behind us and continue our work for the state in a bipartisan manner." House Minority Leader Scott Pelath (D-Michigan City) also declined comment through a spokesman.