Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Indiana Supreme Court Rules Judiciary Cannot Review Fines Imposed On Legislative Members

This case of Berry v. Crawford has taken awhile to decide, but the Indiana Supreme Court finally ruled today that Indiana courts have no jurisdiction to decide a case challenging the fines the legislature imposes on its own members for failing to comply with legislative rules. This dispute arose during the 2011 legislative session when members of the Indiana House Democratic caucus fled the state and held up in a hotel in Urbana, Illinois for weeks in an effort to deny the House of Representatives a quorum to conduct business so legislation enacting Right To Work in Indiana could not be heard. The Republican majority, in accordance with House rules, began imposing fines on the Democratic members who participated in the walk out. The Democratic members then had the audacity to challenge the legality of the fines by taking the Speaker of the House and the state's Auditor Tim Berry to court for withholding the fines from their paychecks.

A trial court dismissed the action challenging the fines but held that the court could hear the members' complaint that the fines had been collected in violation of Indiana's Wage Payment Statute. The trial court then stayed its decision and certified its order for an interlocutory appeal. The Supreme Court's ruling today disagreed with the trial court that any claim was justiciable in this instance, holding that an Indiana court has no right to review such disputes under the separation of powers doctrine. Chief Justice Dickson wrote the majority opinion in today's 3-2 opinion. He concluded, in part:
Although courts in general have the power to determine disputes between citizens, even members of the Indiana General Assembly, we hold that where a particular function has been expressly delegated to the legislature by our Constitution without any express constitutional limitation or qualification, disputes arising in the exercise of such functions are inappropriate for judicial resolution. The case before us involves such nonjusticiable claims for relief on which the judicial branch must decline to pass judgment. The trial court erred in ruling on the merits of this dispute. Both the issuance and collection of fines as legislative discipline are functions constitutionally committed to the legislative branch without express limitation or qualification by our Constitution. We therefore reverse the judgment of the trial court, remand, and direct the trial court to grant the defendants' motion to dismiss for lack of justiciability.
Justice Loretta Rush concurred in the majority opinion's decision that the fines imposed by the House could not be reviewed by the court; however, she dissented with respect to the majority's decision regarding the manner in which the fines were collected by withholding them from the members' paychecks. She would have found that the withholding from their paychecks violated Indiana's Wage Payment Statute. Justice Robert Rucker dissented to the majority's opinion in its entirety, concluding that the courts had both the jurisdiction to review the fines imposed by the House and to review the manner in which those fines were collected violated the Wage Payment Statute.

I would point out that Indiana lawmakers receive their legislative salary up front in lump sum payments at the beginning of the calendar year. The fines were being deducted from payments made to lawmakers for their per diem pay, which lawmakers claim throughout the year for any day on which they claim they performed legislative work. The per diem pay is higher for legislative days than non-legislative days when it's presumed lawmakers aren't actually staying over night outside their district to perform their work. Per diem pay has always been a mechanism for lawmakers to boost their legislative pay without actually voting for a pay raise for themselves.  

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