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Indiana governor scores victory against legislators over emergency powers law

Republican Governor Eric Holcomb challenged the law back in 2021 claiming it violated separation of powers rules.

INDIANAPOLIS (CN) — A unanimous Indiana Supreme Court has struck down a law that allowed the state’s legislature to call emergency sessions during a public emergency.

The state's predominantly Republican General Assembly passed the law — HEA 1123 — after Governor Eric Holcomb’s use of emergency powers during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. The law specifically allows the legislature to call a special session during a public emergency without the approval of the governor.

Holcomb then sued, claiming that the new law was unconstitutional and that it usurped the power to call special sessions, which is uniquely provided to the state’s governor.

In October 2021, the proponents of the law scored a victory when Marion County Judge Patrick Dietrick ruled in favor of the Indiana General Assembly and upheld the law. 

“Because HEA 1123 simply provides when a legislative session will commence and does not limit or restrict the Governor’s ability to call a special session, it does not violate the Special Sessions Clause,” wrote Dietrick.

Holcomb appealed and scored a victory in the Indiana Supreme Court on Friday, when the state’s highest court sided with him, finding that the law was indeed an overreach.

“The Governor is not procedurally barred from seeking declaratory relief on the constitutionality of HEA-1123, and we hold that the law is unconstitutional,” Chief Justice Loretta Rush wrote in the 31-page opinion. “Simply put, absent a constitutional amendment under Article 16, the General Assembly cannot do what HEA-1123 permits.”

While Rush did point to Article 16, which sets out rules for proposed amendments to the Indiana Constitution as a pathway to achieve what HEA 1123 was aiming to do, she also spelled out that the ruling does not bar the General Assembly from calling some additional sessions.

“While our Constitution authorizes only the Governor to call a special session, the General Assembly can set additional sessions — but only by fixing their length and frequency in a law passed during a legislative session and presented to the Governor,” Rush wrote.

Despite being at odds with members of his own party, Holcomb expressed his satisfaction with the court's ruling.

"From the beginning, this case presented important procedural, statutory and Constitutional questions that only the courts could answer. Today, the Indiana Supreme Court has provided clarity and finality on these important issues. I appreciate the patience and humility Speaker Huston and Senator Bray have shown throughout the entire process, of which I always sought to match. With this critical matter resolved, we’ll continue focusing on building a prosperous state full of opportunity for all," Holcomb said in statement.

Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita, who had supported the law, was disappointed with the ruling.

“The Indiana Supreme Court provided answers to several areas of the law that the governor questioned. But in doing so, the court became a legislature today by overriding the intent of those who are directly elected by the people. The good news is the General Assembly can correct this. Fortunately, the court rejected the governor’s claim that the legislature could meet only once a year unless the governor — and only the governor — calls them into session. We will continue to fight for Hoosiers and to protect their liberties,” Rokita said in a statement.

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