(The Center Square) – The governor is not entitled to a second veto, and the lawyer he has hired to sue the Indiana Legislature for trying to limit his powers is “unauthorized,” Attorney General Todd Rokita said in a new court filing.
Rokita is defending his move to have the court strike down Gov. Eric Holcomb’s challenge to House Bill 1123, which was vetoed by Holcomb but then overridden by the Indiana General Assembly and is now state law.
The new law allows legislative leaders to call the General Assembly into an emergency session after the governor has declared a statewide emergency. The session can meet for a maximum of 40 days and only can consider legislation related to the emergency.
“The governor has already exercised his constitutional role in vetoing HEA 1123; having been overridden by the General Assembly, he is not entitled to another veto via litigation,” Rokita wrote in a motion to the court that was filed Tuesday.
Rokita said the lawyer who has been hired by Holcomb, Indianapolis litigator John C. Trimble, is “unauthorized’ as he, Rokita, did not sign off on Trimble representing the governor in this case challenging the constitutionality of a state law.
The court, Rokita said, would be ignoring the “original understanding of the Indiana Constitution” and “statutes and cases going back more than half a century” if it allowed the governor’s lawsuit to proceed.
“Accordingly, unauthorized counsel may not litigate on behalf of the state in the person of the governor, and the proper remedy, as the state’s motion explains and illustrates … is to strike their appearances.”
The legal dispute between Rokita and Holcomb began to be revealed in April, when Rokita’s office sent out a statement that it had not signed off on Holcomb’s hiring of an attorney to represent him in challenging HEA 1123. But it was not clear at the time whether the dispute was substantive or a minor disagreement over process.
Some commentators in the state have noted the dispute is between a governor who is not popular with the conservative Republican base of voters and a man who would like to be the next governor.
“He’s kind of a hero to the right if he wins,” political commentator Rob Kendall said last week on his WIBC show, speaking of Rokita, “because the conservative wing of the Republican Party really doesn’t like the governor. But if he loses, that looks bad.”
Rokita is a former secretary of state and former member of Congress representing Indiana's 4th Congressional District. Holcomb is term-limited as governor and cannot run in 2024, but he is rumored to be interested in a U.S. Senate seat.
That the new law has become such a flashpoint is surprising to many observers as HB 1123 was considered a mild attempt to allow the Legislature, in future emergencies, some ability to be involved and to make decisions about mandates and how federal disaster money should be spent.
When the General Assembly was debating the bill, House Speaker Todd Huston, a Republican representing Fishers, said it would not apply to the current pandemic, only to future emergencies.
Holcomb’s lawsuit, filed in Marion County court, lists Rodric Bray, president pro tempore of the Indiana Senate, and Huston, speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives, as defendants.
In his latest motion to the court, which was in response to Holcomb’s motion to dismiss, Rokita said only the attorney general can authorize such a lawsuit, saying the Indiana Supreme Court long has recognized “Indiana law vests the Attorney General with the authority and responsibility for setting a single legal policy on behalf of the state,” and adding that Indiana courts, meanwhile, “have authority to resolve concrete and justiciable legal disputes.”