INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana's chief justice urged lawmakers Thursday 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.
The case before the court involved the collection of thousands of dollars in fines that majority Republicans imposed on House Democrats who took part in boycotts in 2011. Most of the Democrats spent weeks at an Illinois hotel, largely to block action on a right-to-work bill that was later passed in the face of labor protests at the Statehouse.
A lawsuit initiated by then-Rep. Bill Crawford of Indianapolis and joined later by other Democrats contended that legislative leaders and the state treasurer violated state wage laws by withholding the fines from their daily expense checks without their consent. The state Supreme Court placed the fines' collection on hold last February until it could rule on the case.
In arguments Thursday, Indiana Solicitor General Thomas Fisher said the case was about "hardball politics" and didn't belong in court.
Chief Justice Brent Dickson mentioned Fisher's remark when he chided both sides at the conclusion of the hearing.
"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."
The lawyers who argued the case said they believe both sides will be willing to talk.
"I would never fail to take the advice of the chief justice of the Supreme Court of the state of Indiana," said Mark GiaQuinta, who represented House Democrats.
Rep. Scott Pelath of Michigan City, who succeeded Rep. Patrick Bauer of South Bend as House Democratic leader in November, issued a statement saying his caucus is "always open to discussing what is best for the institution."
"The structure of government and limitations of its power must endure the political winds and transcend the passions of the moment," Pelath said.
Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma, who initiated the fines, issued a statement saying courts lack jurisdiction over the internal workings of the General Assembly. His caucus won a super-majority in November that gives it enough votes to continue business even if Democrats were to walk out again.
"I look forward to the Supreme Court confirming the limitation of judicial authority over the legislative branch, and to getting the activities of the 2013 session under way," Bosma said.
The justices prodded both attorneys 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 the degree to which the Legislature could go to collect them was.
Justice Loretta Rush asked Fisher if the House had the power to seize members' cars or homes if they don't follow the rules. "Is there any limit to the collective power?" she asked.
"No, I don't think there is," Fisher answered. He cited a case where another state's Legislature seized a member's house over an unpaid fine.
GiaQuinta said House leaders hadn't followed due process in collecting the fines. He suggested that officials should have filed a lawsuit and asked a judge to garnish the legislators' wages.
"How is that materially different from what happened here?" Justice Robert Rucker said. "The end is the same."
Crawford, who attended the hearing, said about $3,000 had been deducted from his paycheck, and his pension was also affected.
"I had no due process," he told reporters outside the courtroom.
There is no timeline for the court's ruling.