Indiana Governor Sues to Block Limits on Emergency Powers

The contested law allows the Indiana General Assembly to call its own emergency sessions and gives lawmakers greater control over federal emergency funds.

The Indiana State Capitol in downtown Indianapolis. (Image by David Mark from Pixabay via Courthouse News)

INDIANAPOLIS (CN) — Indiana’s Republican governor is asking a state judge to find provisions in a new law unconstitutional because they grant the Legislature emergency powers that are reserved for the executive branch.

Governor Eric Holcomb’s lawsuit was filed Tuesday in Marion County Circuit Court and asks a judge to block House Enrolled Act 1123, claiming it usurps the power granted to the governor under the state’s constitution by allowing the General Assembly to call its own emergency sessions.

The General Assembly passed the law in response to Holcomb’s emergency rules he enacted during the Covid-19 pandemic, including limiting crowd sizes, closing nonessential businesses and implementing a statewide mask mandate.

“I took an oath to uphold the constitution of the state of Indiana and I have an obligation to do so. This filing is about the future of the executive branch and all the governors who will serve long after I’m gone,” Holcomb, who was reelected to a second term last November, said in a statement Tuesday.

The governor’s complaint states that he has been transparent with his use of emergency powers during the coronavirus crisis by holding regular press conferences and providing information through the state’s Covid-19 website.

Holcomb vetoed HEA 1123 on April 9, echoing the sentiments espoused in the lawsuit, but less than a week later both chambers of the Republican-controlled General Assembly voted to override the veto.

One of the lawsuit’s defendants, Indiana Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray, said in a statement that he was not surprised by the governor’s lawsuit.

“The governor shared his intent to challenge the constitutionality of this law with me, and this is not unexpected,” the Martinsville Republican said. “As I have said before, there is a fundamental disagreement on the constitutionality of HEA 1123.”

HEA 1123 specifically allows Indiana lawmakers to call their own special emergency legislative session during a state of emergency declared by the governor. The law also grants lawmakers more control over discretionary funds given to the state by the federal government during such an emergency.

In a letter released alongside his veto, Holcomb argued that the legislation not only violates the separation of powers among each branch of state government, but it also opens up such emergency decisions to unneeded legal challenges.

“Government should serve as a steady foundation during a time of crisis,” Holcomb wrote in his veto letter. “Avoidable legal challenges during a state of emergency will only serve to be disruptive to our state.”

In that same letter, Holcomb went on to write that he welcomes input from the legislative branch during such times of emergency.

“I do want to be clear that I support efforts to increase partnership and collaboration between the legislative and executive branches during states of emergency,” Holcomb wrote. “I remain willing to work with the General Assembly to address their concerns to represent our shared constituents during declared states of emergency.”

Besides Bray, the lawsuit also lists as defendants Republican Indiana House Speaker Todd Huston, the Indiana Legislative Council and the General Assembly.

Huston said the lawmakers are in contact with the Indiana attorney general over what comes next.

“Governor Holcomb has been transparent about his thoughts and intentions regarding House Enrolled Act 1123,” Huston said. “We are in consultation with the Indiana Attorney General’s Office on what the next steps will be in this matter.”

Earlier this month, Holcomb ended capacity restrictions on businesses and declined to renew the statewide mask mandate. However, cities and counties can still enact their own Covid-19 safety measures.

The current state of emergency for Indiana is set to expire on Friday.

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