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Judge rules on case involving legislative walkout fines

December 6, 2011

A Marion Superior judge has ruled that state courts don’t have the ability to interfere with the Indiana General Assembly’s constitutional authority to pass laws or its own internal rules, including how it compels attendance or imposes fines.

But Judge David Dreyer also ruled that if the legislative body is acting as an employer, then the state must adhere to Indiana statute on employee wage issues and those claims are ones that trial courts can consider.

In a five-page decision Tuesday in William Crawford v. Tim Berry, et al., No. 49D10-1106-PL-023491, Dreyer kept alive a case filed in June on the heels of 39 Indiana House of Representatives Democrats being fined for a five-week walkout in February and March. House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, used a House rule to assess fines against the Democrats who left the state in response to a proposed right-to-work bill. The fines were deducted from their legislative pay, and Rep. William Crawford, D-Indianapolis, brought suit to recoup the more than $3,000 taken in wages and retirement contributions by State Auditor Tim Berry.

The suit alleged that Indiana Code 22-2-8-1 prohibits employers from taking the fines out of paychecks. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss on grounds that state courts don’t have the authority to intervene in the internal affairs of a separate branch of government.

Relying on Article 3, Section 1 of the Indiana Constitution and a 1993 Indiana Supreme Court case, Dreyer agreed with the state’s argument and granted the motion to dismiss on that issue. State statute doesn’t allow the fine, and Dreyer pointed to State ex Rel. Masariu v. Marion Superior Court, Ind., 621 N.E.2d 1097 (1993), to find that even illegal activities don’t mean the courts can intervene.

“So, Indiana courts cannot interfere with the House’s ‘exclusive constitutional authority’ to pass laws, even if they violate other laws when doing so,” Dreyer wrote. “Similarly, this Court cannot interfere with the House’s ‘exclusive constitutional authority’ to compel attendance or determine a fine, even if it violates I.C. 22-2-8-1 when doing so.”

As a result of that determination, Dreyer dismissed Bosma as a party.

But even when the House has “exclusive constitutional authority” to compel attendance and impose fines, Dreyer determined the courts can still interpret and enforce applicable Indiana statutes on wages because of its own “exclusive constitutional authority.” The judge found that the House fine affects statutorily protected employee compensation and that doesn’t fall within the legislative body’s exclusive power because the House is acting as an employer. That means Berry, the state auditor, remains as a defendant and the suit proceeds.


 

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