Lawsuit renews question about attorney general suspension

Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill is suspended from the practice of law through June 17, but continues to seek the Republican Party nomination for reelection.

Four Marion County residents have filed a lawsuit in state court, challenging Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill’s ability to remain in office after having his law license suspended beginning May 18.

James Perron, Kathy Perron, Julia Vaughn and John Windle assert that because Hill has been suspended from the practice of law for 30 days, he is no longer qualified to serve as the state’s attorney general. The office of Indiana’s top lawyer is now vacant, the plaintiffs say, and only the governor has the authority to appoint a successor.

“We bring this litigation today because leaving this important question unanswered weakens the foundation of Indiana government,” James Perron, former mayor of Elkhart, said. “For the public trust to be upheld, the rule of law must be followed, particularly when public officials are involved.”

The Indiana Supreme Court this month suspended Hill for one month for his conduct related to accusations he drunkenly groped a state legislator and three legislative staff members at a party in March 2018. He will be automatically reinstated June 17.

However, the per curiam order is silent as to what should happen once the attorney general became ineligible to practice law. Immediately after the suspension order was issued, Hill tapped his chief deputy, Aaron Negangard, to serve as the interim Indiana Attorney General, but Gov. Eric Holcomb petitioned the Supreme Court, asking for guidance on who can appoint the replacement.

The Supreme Court denied the governor’s petition. The justices found the governor’s intervention in a disciplinary action was inappropriate and he was raising issues that were “extraneous to our disciplinary opinion.”

In their complaint, the four plaintiffs cited the Indiana Supreme Court’s own precedent that defines when a vacancy is created. The cases In re Szilagyi, 969 N.E.2d 1007 (Ind. 2012) and In re Appointment of Temporary Prosecuting Attorney, 834 N.E.2d 656, 657 (Ind. 2005) established that a vacancy is created when an attorney, who holds an elected office that requires a law license, is suspended from the practice of law.

The plaintiffs argue there is no statute giving the attorney general the authority to name a deputy to assume his statutory duties and powers. Instead, the Indiana Constitution in Article 5, Section 18 requires the governor to name a successor whenever there is a vacancy in a state office.

“Curtis Hill currently lacks the ability to practice law in the state — the most basic qualification for the job of Attorney General,” Vaughn said. “He has been found guilty of criminal acts and used his office to intimidate his accusers. Allowing him to handpick his successor and reassume the office in thirty days undermines respect for both the law and our state government.

“The dark cloud of impropriety that hangs over the Attorney General’s office will not dissipate if the court allows Mr. Hill to continue to manipulate the process.”

Gov. Holcomb is listed as a defendant in the lawsuit along with Hill and Negangard. The complaint explains Holcomb is joined as a defendant because he claims an interest in this matter and not including him might impair his ability to protect that interest.

The case is James Perron, Kathy Perron, Julia Vaughn, and John Windle v. Curtis T. Hill Jr., Aaron Negangard and Eric Holcomb, in his official capacity as Governor of the State of Indiana, 49D07-2005-PL-016774.

Attorney William Groth of Macey Swanson LLP is representing the plaintiffs.

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