Holcomb says he remains confident he can impose mask mandate, despite AG’s opinion otherwise

Gov. Eric Holcomb said Thursday he is confident he has the legal authority to impose a statewide mask mandate, telling reporters after an event in Lafayette that “we do our research before we speak.” His comments came after fellow Republican Attorney General Curtis Hill issued an opinion saying Holcomb lacked the authority to enforce a mask order.

The Republican governor’s comments came a day after he announced the mandate, which will require face coverings for anyone who is 8 years and older in indoor public places commercial entitles, transportation services, or in outside public spaces when social distancing isn’t possible. The requirement is to take effect Monday.

Holcomb said he decided to mandate masks in response to the state’s rising COVID-19 caseload.

The Indiana State Department of Health on Thursday reported 954 new COVID-19 cases, an all-time daily high for positive cases. The state has now reported more than 600 cases daily for the past 10 days.

Following Holcomb’s announcement, five Republican senators asked Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill for an official opinion about whether the governor had the power to enforce such a mandate. Hill, also a Republican, released an advisory opinion late Wednesday that said Holcomb would need to call a special session to create and enforce the requirement.

“Without properly delegated authority from the General Assembly, the proposed order would not have the force and effect of law,” Hill wrote in the advisory opinions. “The General Assembly would need to specifically and clearly allow for a mask mandate by law.”

Holcomb had previously said there won’t be any “mask police,” but violations will be considered a Class B misdemeanor, which can result in up to 180 days in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.

Hill said specifically in his opinion that Holcomb has no authority to create a crime or enact punishment without legislative authority.

But when asked about Hill’s opinion and whether, as governor, he believed he could issue the mandate, Holcomb said, “I wouldn’t have said it if I didn’t believe it. I do believe it.”

The Governor’s Office provided the account of Holcomb’s conversation to IBJ, which did not have a staffer in Lafayette. According to that transcript, a reporter asked Holcomb whether he’s concerned he will be sued to stop the mandate.

“I don’t live under the threat of lawsuit,” Holcomb said. “We do our research before we speak.”

Two of the five senators who requested Hill’s opinion told IBJ on Thursday they have no plans to sue to stop the mandate. In fact, one of them—Sen. Jim Buck, R-Kokomo—said he doesn’t want to get into a “legal squabble” with the governor.

“I think that’s a bridge too far, quite honestly,” Buck said. Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, also told IBJ he didn’t foresee litigation over the mask mandate. The other senators who had requested an opinion from Hill were Blake Doriot of Syracuse, Mark Messmer of Jasper and Jim Tomes of Evansville.

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