Democrats' walkout leads to another 'fines' mess

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Before the Indiana General Assembly convened Jan. 7, some unfinished business was debated in the Statehouse: whether Republican House leaders went too far in seizing fines from Democrats who walked out of the Legislature in 2011 and 2012.

The Indiana Supreme Court on Jan. 3 heard oral arguments in Tim Berry, et al. v. William Crawford, et al., 49S00-1201-PL-53. At issue is whether the Legislature had the power to withhold from Democratic lawmakers’ per diem payments the fines that were assessed when the minority bolted from the House in an effort to prevent votes on right-to-work legislation.

giaquinta GiaQuinta

Attorney Mark GiaQuinta of Haller & Colvin P.C. in Fort Wayne argued on behalf of Democratic lawmakers and told the court they had no due process. “We’re proposing (the Legislature) follow the same procedure as any other employer,” he said, which would involve a judgment and garnishment order from a court. He said House members suffered losses of $5,000 to $10,000 in per diems and related benefits.

Indiana Solicitor General Thomas Fisher opened his defense of the Legislature’s powers by telling the court, “This case is about hardball politics, pure and simple.” But Chief Justice Brent Dickson closed the arguments with a plea for both sides to compromise and settle the dispute, and he referenced Fisher’s opening by saying, “Courts are not a political institution.”

Indiana University Maurer School of Law professor Luis Fuentes-Rohwer observed that the justices seemed uneasy intervening in a separation-of-powers case that he said nonetheless “is no different than millions of other cases.

fuentes Fuentes-Rohwer

“This is a classic, classic case. You can see (the justices) puzzling, you can see them struggling,” said Fuentes-Rohwer, whose areas of expertise include judicial independence and accountability and democratic theory. “They know there ought to be limits.”

GiaQuinta argued before the justices that there is little court precedent for the seizure of lawmakers’ pay besides Powell v. McCormack, 395 U.S. 486 (1969), in which a scandalized lawmaker was seated but fined $25,000. The U.S. Supreme Court held that Congress may not develop qualifications for members beyond those in Article 1, Section 5 of the Constitution.

“No other case we can find other than Powell v. McCormack involves the seizure of legislative pay,” GiaQuinta said.

fisher Fisher

Fisher argued that courts have very limited grounds to intervene in House discipline under its rules, but several justices questioned him regarding how far the Legislature could go in collecting the fines it assesses. Among the hypotheticals: Could it impose fines if members voted a particular way? Could it burn down a disobedient lawmaker’s house as discipline?

“Is there any limit on the ability to collect fines?” Justice Loretta Rush asked, after which Fisher said the General Assembly should have the ability to collect without judicial interference as long as it was within House rules.

“How far do you push the non-intervention of the court based on the conduct of the General Assembly?” asked Justice Robert Rucker, the lone Democrat-appointed member of the court. “It is the collection piece that still bothers me.”

Fisher replied that fines and their collection have been the province of legislatures since colonial times. “This is something legislatures have done over centuries,” he said.

After oral arguments, Rep. William Crawford, D-Indianapolis, said the case was about fairness. “Why should they treat me any differently because I happen to be a legislator?”

GiaQuinta, meantime, said Dickson had made his point regarding compromise. “I would never fail to take the advice of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Indiana,” he said. GiaQuinta indicated after the arguments that he planned to talk further with Fisher.

House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, also embraced Dickson’s call for the House to settle its own business.

“We’re always open to discussing what is best for the institution not just for today, but for twenty years in the future or a hundred years in the future,” Pelath said in a statement. “The structure of government and limitations of its power must endure the political winds and transcend the passions of the moment.” 

But House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, issued a statement after the argument that sounded like compromise was off the table.

“I appreciate the attorney general’s continued defense of the separation of powers doctrine clearly mandated by our state’s Constitution, and continue to hold that our court system has no jurisdiction to review or overturn the internal workings of the Indiana General Assembly,” Bosma said.

“I look forward to the Supreme Court confirming the limitation of judicial authority over the legislative branch, and to getting the activities of the 2013 session under way.”

Neither Bosma nor Pelath responded to subsequent requests for comment.

Fuentes-Rohwer said Bosma’s comments after the arguments “sent a shot across the bow” directed at the court. “‘Remember, we’re watching,’ is basically what he said.”

Despite the court’s seeming displeasure in arbitrating the case, courts intervene frequently in issues involving powers of other branches of government, Fuentes-Rohwer said, from redistricting disputes to the Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore.

“It’s not a question of law, it’s a question of judicial will: are they really going to step in here?,” he said. “Anybody who thinks the court doesn’t play politics isn’t paying attention.”

But Fuentes-Rohwer said the case also is about the court’s willingness to establish limiting principles on the Legislature. He predicted the court would determine that the Legislature is subject to certain limiting principles that can be imposed by the court, but that the instant case isn’t one in which they apply.

“My guess would be that (justices) say this is the traditional purview of the Legislature,” he said. “I would be surprised if they were to stand in the way of the Indiana Legislature.”•


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  1. Especially I would like to see all the republican voting patriotic good ole boys to stop and understand that the wars they have been volunteering for all along (especially the past decade at least) have not been for God & Jesus etc no far from it unless you think George Washington's face on the US dollar is god (and we know many do). When I saw the movie about Chris Kyle, I thought wow how many Hoosiers are just like this guy, out there taking orders to do the nasty on the designated bad guys, sometimes bleeding and dying, sometimes just serving and coming home to defend a system that really just views them as reliable cannon fodder. Maybe if the Christians of the red states would stop volunteering for the imperial legions and begin collecting welfare instead of working their butts off, there would be a change in attitude from the haughty professorial overlords that tell us when democracy is allowed and when it isn't. To come home from guarding the borders of the sandbox just to hear if they want the government to protect this country's borders then they are racists and bigots. Well maybe the professorial overlords should gird their own loins for war and fight their own battles in the sandbox. We can see what kind of system this really is from lawsuits like this and we can understand who it really serves. NOT US.... I mean what are all you Hoosiers waving the flag for, the right of the president to start wars of aggression to benefit the Saudis, the right of gay marriage, the right for illegal immigrants to invade our country, and the right of the ACLU to sue over displays of Baby Jesus? The right of the 1 percenters to get richer, the right of zombie banks to use taxpayer money to stay out of bankruptcy? The right of Congress to start a pissing match that could end in WWIII in Ukraine? None of that crud benefits us. We should be like the Amish. You don't have to go far from this farcical lawsuit to find the wise ones, they're in the buggies in the streets not far away....

  2. Moreover, we all know that the well heeled ACLU has a litigation strategy of outspending their adversaries. And, with the help of the legal system well trained in secularism, on top of the genuinely and admittedly secular 1st amendment, they have the strategic high ground. Maybe Christians should begin like the Amish to withdraw their services from the state and the public and become themselves a "people who shall dwell alone" and foster their own kind and let the other individuals and money interests fight it out endlessly in court. I mean, if "the people" don't see how little the state serves their interests, putting Mammon first at nearly every turn, then maybe it is time they wake up and smell the coffee. Maybe all the displays of religiosity by American poohbahs on down the decades have been a mask of piety that concealed their own materialistic inclinations. I know a lot of patriotic Christians don't like that notion but I entertain it more and more all the time.

  3. If I were a judge (and I am not just a humble citizen) I would be inclined to make a finding that there was no real controversy and dismiss them. Do we allow a lawsuit every time someone's feelings are hurt now? It's preposterous. The 1st amendment has become a sword in the hands of those who actually want to suppress religious liberty according to their own backers' conception of how it will serve their own private interests. The state has a duty of impartiality to all citizens to spend its judicial resources wisely and flush these idiotic suits over Nativity Scenes down the toilet where they belong... however as Christians we should welcome them as they are the very sort of persecution that separates the sheep from the wolves.

  4. What about the single mothers trying to protect their children from mentally abusive grandparents who hide who they truly are behind mounds and years of medication and have mentally abused their own children to the point of one being in jail and the other was on drugs. What about trying to keep those children from being subjected to the same abuse they were as a child? I can understand in the instance about the parent losing their right and the grandparent having raised the child previously! But not all circumstances grant this being OKAY! some of us parents are trying to protect our children and yes it is our God given right to make those decisions for our children as adults!! This is not just black and white and I will fight every ounce of this to get denied

  5. Mr Smith the theory of Christian persecution in Indiana has been run by the Indiana Supreme Court and soundly rejected there is no such thing according to those who rule over us. it is a thought crime to think otherwise.