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Dickson encourages compromise on House Democrat fines suit

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Indiana Chief Justice Brent Dickson implored litigants to resolve a lawsuit over the collection of fines levied on House Democrats who walked out of the Legislature in 2011 and 2012.

“Courts are not a political institution,” Dickson said at the close of oral arguments, after he noted Solicitor General Thomas Fisher’s opening observation that the case was about hardball politics. Dickson admonished “both sides to get together and settle this by compromise.”

Justices on Thursday 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.

Fisher argued that courts had 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.

“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 its 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 Democratic-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.

Attorney Mark GiaQuinta of Haller & Colvin P.C. in Fort Wayne argued on behalf of Democratic lawmakers 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. He said the seizure of lawmakers’ pay left them without access to due process that would have been provided in a garnishment proceeding.

“We’re proposing they follow the same procedure as any other employer,” he said.

GiaQuinta said Democrats who walked out of the session faced economic losses of $5,000 to $10,000, when fines and their impact on other benefits are tallied.

After Thursday’s argument, 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. “I would never fail to take the advice of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Indiana,” he said. He said after Thursday’s arguments that he planned to talk further with Fisher.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, issued a statement after Thursday’s 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.”
 

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