Justices split in Bloomington’s favor in annexation dispute with Holcomb

A divided Indiana Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled in favor of the city of Bloomington, upholding a ruling against the Indiana governor and striking down “special legislation” targeting the city’s annexation efforts. Dissenting justices, however, warned that the majority’s holding “erodes separation of powers.”

While the city of Bloomington was taking initial steps toward the annexation of nearly 10,000 acres, the Indiana General Assembly in April 2017 added a provision into the state’s budget bill. 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 until July 1, 2022.

Bloomington filed a complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief against Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, claiming the provision targeting the city’s attempts to annex the land was unconstitutional. Specifically, Bloomington sought declarations that Section 11.8 constituted special legislation that violated Article 4, Section 23 of the Indiana Constitution and that it violated Article 4, Section 19’s single-subject rule.

Holcomb moved to dismiss Bloomington’s complaint, arguing he was not a proper defendant because he does not enforce the statute, but the trial court denied that motion. The court then granted summary judgment to the city in April 2019, declaring Section 11.8 unconstitutional under Article 4, Sections 19 and 23.

Splitting in its decision, the Indiana Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s ruling in the case of Eric Holcomb, in his official capacity as Governor of the State of Indiana v. City of Bloomington, 19S-PL-304. The high court addressed two issues in its decision: whether Bloomington properly sought declaratory relief from the governor and whether Section 11.8 is unconstitutional.

Keeping in mind the governor’s narrow justiciability argument, the high court majority first found that the governor, in light of his constitutional authority and duty, does enforce Section 11.8. As such, it concluded Bloomington could bring its declaratory judgment action against him in the case at hand because of the unique way in which the Legislature drafted the statute.

“The unique features of Section 11.8 show that the Governor enforces the statute pursuant to his general executive power and his duty to take care that the laws are faithfully executed,” Justice Christopher Goff wrote for the majority. “Because the Governor enforces Section 11.8 under these rare circumstances, a judgment in Bloomington’s favor here will provide redress to the city by removing the statute as a barrier to its proposed annexation.

“Therefore, Bloomington’s suit against the Governor easily presents the ripening seeds of a controversy that our Declaratory Judgments Act requires,” Goff continued, joined by Chief Justice Loretta Rush, concurring, and Justice Steven David, concurring in result. “We emphasize, however, that the Governor’s argument will win in most cases — his general constitutional powers and duties will not establish enough of a connection to a statute to allow a suit like this one under most circumstances. But, given the one-of-a-kind statute involved, the Governor’s constitutional authority and duty, the significant injury suffered by Bloomington, and the ability to afford it redress through declaratory judgment, we must reach this unusual result.”

Additionally, the majority found that Bloomington’s declaratory judgment action presents an actual controversy, and prudential concerns compel the high court to resolve it.

On the second question, the majority concluded the Legislature drafted Section 11.8 as a special law when a general law could have been made. Thus, it determined Section 11.8 violates Article 4, Section 23’s limitation on special laws.

“If the legislature were truly concerned with the pace and mood of Bloomington’s proposed annexation or Bloomington’s use of remonstrance waivers, that concern would have applied equally across Indiana. But the legislature did not pass a law prohibiting such activity by every municipality in the state,” Goff wrote. “Instead, it singled out Bloomington. Under the circumstances here, that special treatment doled out by Section 11.8 is unconstitutional.

“… Accordingly, we affirm the trial court’s order granting summary judgment and declaratory relief to Bloomington and ruling that Section 11.8 constitutes impermissible special legislation in violation of Article 4, Section 23 of the Indiana Constitution.”

In a footnote, the majority noted that it did not consider the argument under Article 4, Section 19 because the legislation was struck down under Section 23.

Justices Geoffrey Slaughter and Mark Massa, however, dissented in a separate opinion, arguing against the majority’s holding that “broad principles of standing do not apply here but prudential considerations do.”

“I respectfully disagree on both points and would not give our state constitution’s separation-of-powers mandate such short shrift under either doctrine,” Slaughter wrote in a dissenting opinion, joined by Massa. “Our constitution confines courts to deciding cases over which they have jurisdiction. A justiciable case — one suitable for judicial resolution — has essential constitutional requirements like standing and nonessential considerations like prudence. Today’s decision conflates the essential with the nonessential and thus erodes separation of powers.

“… Because our decision cannot be reconciled with the structural limits on judicial power compelled by Article 3, Section 1, and the governor’s grant of power under Article 5, Section 16, I respectfully dissent.”

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