Gov. Eric Holcomb was right to recently extend COVID emergency orders through November, and he’s also right to appeal a misguided court ruling that says lawmakers can call themselves into session. It’s an attempt to erode the Indiana governor’s few executive powers, and a recipe for political chicanery that the courts shouldn’t allow.
For politicians who like to puff up their chests and boast about what strict constitutional constructionists they are, Attorney General Todd Rokita and the Indiana General Assembly’s supermajority Republicans sure could use some reading lessons.
The Indiana Constitution could not be clearer on the governor’s authority. In addition to setting the start of annual sessions of the General Assembly, Article 4, Section 9 explicitly and clearly gives the governor the power to otherwise convene the legislature. It reads: “But if, in the opinion of the Governor, the public welfare shall require it, he may at any time by proclamation, call a special session.”
You won’t find any such power delegated to the legislature elsewhere in the Indiana Constitution. But such trivial matters as what constitutions say have seldom stopped our lawmakers from asserting powers and privileges they believe they ought to have.
The constitution and state law also vests the governor emergency powers, such as those Holcomb has used in the name of public health during the pandemic. The governor having this sole authority makes sense because the buck must stop somewhere. It’s logical that one person — a governor elected by the people statewide — should have exclusive authority to make decisions in a crisis rather than a committee of 150, the number of Indiana lawmakers we have.
Let’s face what this little power struggle is really about. This is and always has been about a few people in the legislature who are still mad about mask mandates that have long since expired. They wanted to take a swipe at Holcomb, even though he is the leader of their party. They’re willing to topple constitutional provisions to do so.
If lawmakers were so mad at Holcomb’s handling of the pandemic and his issuance of emergency orders, they have a remedy. The Indiana Constitution vests the General Assembly with the power to impeach the governor if lawmakers think he’s acted negligently. Lawmakers know they have no basis to do that, yet they feel they must do something, so here we are in a constitutional crisis of the General Assembly’s own making.
Now Holcomb and Rokita, representing the General Assembly, have asked the Indiana Supreme Court to hear an appeal over whether General Assembly leaders can call themselves into session. The high court should take the case, and it should reject the legislature’s power grab that disregards a clearly delegated separation of powers. Our courts should simply read and apply the Indiana Constitution as written. They should not allow cynical, petty political gamesmanship to erase one of the few real, important and necessary powers delegated to our governor.
Holcomb has taken flak for doing too much and for doing too little during the pandemic. For the most part, though, he’s led competently and in the public’s interests through one of the most difficult times of our lives. Rokita and the Indiana General Assembly should credit the governor, not undermine him.
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