Justices hear Holcomb v. Bloomington annexation appeal

Arguments were heard Thursday before the state’s highest court in an annexation dispute between the City of Bloomington and the Indiana Governor’s Office, with the city defending its award of summary judgment and Gov. Eric Holcomb’s office arguing for a reversal.

Issues arose for the city in April 2017, when the Indiana General Assembly quietly added section 161 into its biennial budget bill at the last moment. The special legislation, codified at Indiana code § 36-4-3-11.8, voided a Bloomington annexation ordinance and prohibited the city from pursuing any municipal annexation for another five years.

In response, Bloomington sued Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb for declaratory and injunctive relief against claiming the provision targeting the city’s attempts to annex nearly 10,000 acres was unconstitutional.

Frank Nardi, a Brown County magistrate judge serving as special judge in the Bloomington case, granted summary judgment to the city in April 2019. He found the act enrolled at I.C. 36-4-3-11.8 to be unconstitutional special legislation in violation of Article 4, Section 23 of the Indiana Constitution because the statute only applies to Bloomington annexation efforts and could have been made generally applicable. The trial court additionally ruled that the part of legislation that added the statute violates the single-subject clause of Article 4, Section 19 because it did not bear a logical and proper connection with the biennial budget into which it was inserted for enactment.

The governor appealed during a Thursday oral argument before the Indiana Supreme Court in Eric Holcomb, in his capacity as governor of Ind. v. City of Bloomington, 19S-PL-00304, challenging both the trial court’s declarations of unconstitutionality and its ruling that Holcomb is a proper defendant to the city’s lawsuit.

Specifically, Indiana Solicitor General Thomas Fisher asserted that the governor is not a proper defendant in the case because he neither enforces the Annexation Law nor is involved in the annexation process.

“If not the governor, then who are they supposed to sue?” questioned Justice Mark Massa during Thursday’s oral argument.

There are multiple possibilities, Fisher maintained, including landowners who might object to the annexation ordinance and invoke the statute to block it, or county officials such as the auditor or surveyor.

“They’re the ones where the rubber hits the road,” Fisher said of the latter. “That’s where they make the record of the annexation and its effect on the tax roll.”

Fisher further asserted that the decision in Horner v. Curry, 125 N.E.3d 584 (Ind. 2019) gives clarity to the issue of respecting the separation of powers.

“It takes rigorous understanding who is a proper plaintiff and defendant, you know, checking the box. Injury. Causation. Redressability. Where is that here?” he asked. “And unless we’re going to make the governor an all-purpose defendant in all constitutional cases, this case has got to be dismissed.”

Bloomington city attorney Michael Rouker contested that it properly named Holcomb as the defendant, arguing the city’s brief that the state incorrectly suggested that the dispute was “not justiciable because the Governor cannot redress Bloomington’s injury.”

When asked what relief the court could order Holcomb to provide to remedy the constitutional violation, Rouker said there’s no specific remedy.

“It is because of the way Section 161 is crafted,” Rouker told the chief justice. “There’s really no official you could identify who would be able to provide the sort of remedy you’re seeking, as
it simply gives directives to the city of Bloomington that we can’t proceed with any annexation during the next five years.”

Justice Christopher Goff expressed his concern of how to limit a decision to prevent “opening the floodgates” if the governor in his official capacity is named a proper defendant when individuals try to avail themselves of constitutional damages suffered by a constitutional violation.

For his part, Justice Geoffrey Slaughter stated his concerns with what he described as an “extraordinary argument” presented by the governor that he doesn’t have authority, saying: “He may win this battle but lose the war, which is, he has no power unless the legislation says he has the power?”

The full oral arguments in the case can be viewed here.

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