Indiana Supreme Court sides with governor in separation of powers case

Justice conclude only the state’s governor may call the legislature into emergency session.
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EricHolcomb
Indiana Gov, Eric Holcomb
Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The Indiana Supreme Court unanimously ruled Friday only the state’s governor may call the legislature into emergency session.

The case had been brought by Gov. Eric Holcomb in response to a law passed by the General Assembly that allows legislative leaders to call an emergency session. Holcomb challenged the law on constitutional grounds.

The law, known as House Enrolled Act 1123, authorized eight members of the Assembly, known as the Legislative Council, to call for an emergency legislative session when three criteria are met.

Those criteria are the governor has declared a state of emergency the Legislative Council believes impacts the entire state, legislative action is needed to deal with the emergency, and a special session of the General Assembly is needed.

The law passed April 5. Holcomb vetoed it almost immediately, but the veto was overridden by the legislature. Holcomb filed a lawsuit challenging the law three weeks later.

The court’s decision affirmed Holcomb’s claim the legislature cannot call itself into a session outside the times specified by law. Emphasizing that their ruling had no bearing on the advisability of granting that power to the legislature, the case had been decided purely on constitutional grounds.

The decision, authored by Chief Justice Loretta Rush, found that by allowing a subset of eight lawmakers to call a special session, HEA 1123 violated the constitutional provision that the time of legislative sessions be “fixed-by-law,” which would require a bill passed by both houses of the General Assembly. So, the legislature cannot determine the time of a legislative session unless it is actually in session.

The justices affirmed that “This means that only the Governor has the constitutional authority to call a special session, i.e., one that is set at a time when the General Assembly is not in session,” and that HEA 1123 constituted an infringement on the doctrine of separation of powers.

Holcomb hailed the ruling in a statement, saying, “From the beginning, this case presented important procedural, statutory and Constitutional questions that only the courts could answer. Today, the Indiana Supreme Court has provided clarity and finality on these important issues. I appreciate the patience and humility Speaker Huston and Sen. Bray have shown throughout the entire process, of which I always sought to match. With this critical matter resolved, we’ll continue focusing on building a prosperous state full of opportunity for all."

Attorney General Todd Rokita, who had attempted to prevent Holcomb from bringing the suit by claiming he alone had the authority to represent the state in legal matters, criticized the ruling, saying in a statement that “the court became a legislature today by overriding the intent of those who are directly elected by the people.”