INDIANAPOLIS | The eyebrow-raising moments that have accompanied Indiana's becoming a right-to-work state continued Thursday at the State Supreme Court, where Chief Justice Brent Dickson all but demanded House Republicans and Democrats settle their dispute over walkout fines before the court does.
The Hobart native made the unusual request for a settlement following 40 minutes of oral arguments concerning how to collect walkout fines levied by the Republican majority against the House Democrats, including nine from Northwest Indiana, who stalled legislative action on right-to-work by relocating to Illinois for five weeks during the 2011 session.
"Courts are not a political institution," Dickson said. "If it would be at all possible for the political parties in Indiana to set a national example of cooperation, this might be an ideal opportunity for both sides to get their heads together and resolve this matter by compromise, and we encourage that to be considered."
The Democrats claim House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, exceeded his authority by getting Republican State Auditor Tim Berry to deduct approximately $3,000 in fines from the paychecks of Democratic lawmakers.
Mark GiaQuinta, the Democrats' attorney, argued Bosma should have been required to go to court and obtain a wage-garnishment order, similar to the process codified in the 2011 antibolting law enacted by the Republican-controlled Legislature to prevent future walkouts after the Democrats returned from Urbana, Ill.
GiaQuinta said a court order would ensure the lawmakers, like all Indiana citizens facing fines or penalties, are afforded due process to defend their paychecks.
Solicitor General Thomas Fisher, representing Berry and Bosma, argued there's no reason any court, including the Indiana Supreme Court, should ever interfere with the internal workings of another branch of state government. To that end, Fisher said he believes the antibolting law is unconstitutional.
Justices Loretta Rush and Robert Rucker, a Gary native, both seemed skeptical of Fisher's "no interference" claim and repeatedly pressed him on whether a court couldn't step in if, for example, the House seized a lawmaker's car in order to collect a fine, or burned down a lawmaker's home to compel his or her attendance at legislative sessions.
Fisher said even those unlikely scenarios are an internal matter for the House to resolve without interference by the courts.
Both GiaQuinta and Fisher said after being urged by Dickson to compromise that they are willing to discuss reaching a settlement before the court issues its ruling in the case, likely several months from now.
Neither seemed particularly hopeful a deal will be struck.
"Bear in mind there are many elected officials involved in this and I am quite confident they can address this, and when it's appropriate for them to do it I'm sure they will come together and talk as necessary," Fisher said.
Two months ago, Hoosier voters punished Democrats at the ballot box for the walkout.
When the 2013 legislative session begins Monday, Republicans will control 69 seats in the House. That's enough to meet the Indiana Constitution's attendance requirement for legislative action -- even if all 31 House Democrats are absent.