INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma balked when the Indiana Supreme Court offered its opinion on the legislative branch’s political dispute over fines on House Democrats.
Thursday, Indiana’s chief justice urged lawmakers to work out their differences lingering from two straight years of legislative walkouts, signaling possible reluctance by the Supreme Court to intervene in a case involving the fines majority Republicans imposed on House Democrats who took part in the boycotts.
At issue is thousands of dollars in fines. Republicans imposed fines on House Democrats after Democrats spent weeks at an Illinois hotel in 2011 largely to block action on a right-to-work bill that was later passed in the face of labor protests at the Statehouse. Democrats also boycotted briefly in 2012.
Fines were collected, Bosma said, but then several Democrats filed a lawsuit contending that legislative leaders and the state treasurer violated state wage laws by withholding the fines from their daily expense checks without consent. That suit went to the Supreme Court, and while no formal ruling has been made, Chief Justice Brent Dickson chided both sides at the conclusion of a hearing Thursday.
“Courts are not political institutions,” Dickson said. “This might be an ideal opportunity for both sides to get their heads together and resolve this matter. We encourage that to happen.”
Bosma, who represents the northwestern part of Hancock County, initiated the fines. He said Thursday that Dickson is “just trying to help folks resolve conflict” but constitutionally the Supreme Court should not take on the inner workings of the Indiana General Assembly.
“I wouldn’t place myself in the position of making those suggestions to another branch of government,” Bosma said.
Still, he added that the issue is behind him. House Republicans now have a super-majority, which gives the party enough votes to continue business even if Democrats were to walk out again.
Bosma said he’s looking forward to Monday’s start of the legislative session.
“I’m very confident (the Supreme Court is) going to conclude the judicial branch’s nose doesn’t need to be in the center of legislative workings,” Bosma said. “That’s a closed chapter in my book. I’m looking at 2013 and the issues we have in front of us, like continued budget integrity and workforce development for 21st-century jobs, which is critical.”
Justices prodded attorneys on both sides of the issue with questions throughout the hearing, asking repeatedly whether they believed there were any limits on the Legislature’s power over its members and how they thought the fines ought to be collected. The power to levy the fines wasn’t in dispute, but rather the degree to which the Legislature could collect them.
Rep. Scott Pelath of Michigan City, who succeeded Rep. Patrick Bauer of South Bend as House Democratic leader, issued a statement saying his caucus is “always open to discussing what is best for the institution.”
There is no timeline for the court’s ruling.
Staff writer Maribeth Vaughn contributed to this report, as well as the Associated Press.