Holcomb admits allegation that he was elected governor of Indiana, and other insights from court filings in Bloomington annexation lawsuit

In mid-January, Judge Frank Nardi requested an extra courtroom at the Monroe County Circuit Court for a half-day hearing on the afternoon of March 26, for a case filed by the City of Bloomington against the governor of Indiana.

Even though Judge Nardi is not expected to issue a decision from the bench on Tuesday, the hearing is likely to lead eventually to the first ruling on the substance of the case. It was was filed almost two years ago and deals with Bloomington’s annexation efforts.
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The lawsuit stems from a 2017 action by the state’s General Assembly to build into its budget bill a change to state annexation law that effectively singled out Bloomington and paused any annexation plans by the city for five years. The court documents in the case are accessible to the public through MyCase. (Search by case for 53C06-1705-PL-001138. Or download most of the court records in a single compressed file here: City of Bloomington vs. Holcomb.)

Bloomington filed a lawsuit, contending that the General Assembly violated two different parts of the state’s constitution: One limiting bills to single subjects and another prohibiting special legislation.

This article offers a general overview of those constitutional questions and includes a review of some preliminary rulings and points of agreement between the two parties, as well as some of the technical maneuvers that have taken place before the March 26 hearing.

Preliminary Rulings

Over nearly two years, the back-and-forth between the two sides has included various skirmishes on matters not related to the constitutional substance of the lawsuit. One point of friction arose over the inclusion of video from the General Assembly as evidence. Nardi ruled against its inclusion—that is, in favor of Holcomb, who brought the motion to strike the exhibit. (A transcription of the now stricken exchange between Bloomington Rep. Matt Pierce and Crawfordsville Rep. Tim Brown starts on page 19 of Bloomington’s memorandum in support of its motion for summary judgement.)

On another issue, the judge’s ruling went against Holcomb, who contended the suit should be dismissed because he was not a suitable defendant in the case. Nardi denied the motion to dismiss.

After the denial, Holcomb asked for an interlocutory appeal. Such an appeal is a way for a party in a lawsuit to ask for a second opinion on a ruling during a case, before proceedings have concluded at the lower court. Nardi allowed the appeal to be made on-the-fly, but the Court of Appeals declined to overturn Nardi’s denial.

Points of Agreement

Court documents show that the sides agree on at least some questions.

Some of those points of agreement are trivial, but they’re presented in a way that might strike non-lawyers as somewhat comical. The formal complaint detailing the city’s position consists of numbered paragraphs, each of which requires a numbered answer—paragraph by paragraph. The city’s paragraph 7 states:

7. Defendant Eric Holcomb is the duly elected Governor of the State of Indiana.

The answer to this “allegation” is:

ANSWER: Defendant admits the allegations set forth in paragraph 7 of the Complaint.

But the two sides have agreed on some non-trivial matters as the case has developed. After Monroe County Circuit Judge Frances Hill, to whom the case was assigned, disqualified herself, Holcomb and Bloomington agreed on the appointment of Nardi as a special judge. He’s a magistrate on the Brown County Circuit Court.

And on March 26, both sides are making arguments for summary judgment, which means they both think the judge should be able to decide the case based on the facts as presented, without having a full trial. (Sometimes one side will argue against the other side’s request for a summary judgment, saying that additional evidence needs to be collected—through deposition of witnesses, for example—before a judgment can be rendered.)

Defenses Unrelated to Constitutional Questions

Where the two sides differ, of course, is whether the General Assembly’s action—which incorporated into the budget bill a change to annexation law that affects only Bloomington—violated the state’s constitution.

In addition to arguing directly against the two constitutional claims, the written briefs Holcomb has submitted show he is defending the case with two technical arguments. First, he’s still claiming he’s not a suitable defendant, even though Judge Nardi has already ruled on the question. That’s to allow Holcomb to make an ordinary appeal on that point at the conclusion of the case—as opposed to an interlocutory appeal, which has already been attempted without success.

Second, Holcomb’s documents make an argument that Bloomington, as a city, doesn’t have the legal right to sue over the legislature’s action. When Holcomb’s arguments were submitted, the question of a city’s standing to sue was pending review by the Indiana Supreme Court in connection with a different case—Hammond vs. Herman & Kittle Properties, Inc.

Since then, Hammond vs. Herman & Kittle has been decided. On March 15, the Supreme Court ruled on the question of law involving Hammond’s right to sue, deciding in favor of Hammond. The Supreme Court ruled in a footnote that: “We summarily affirm the excellently crafted Court of Appeals decision that Hammond has standing to pursue its constitutional challenges.” So a continued challenge by Holcomb of Bloomington’s standing in the annexation lawsuit would appear futile.

Connection of Supreme Court Ruling to Constitutional Question 

The legal principles in Hammond vs. Herman & Kittle are related to Bloomington’s annexation lawsuit, not just because both involve a city seeking to sue someone. Like Bloomington’s annexation lawsuit, Hammond vs. Herman & Kittle also involved “special legislation.” In that case, the alleged “special legislation” benefited the City of Bloomington, because it allowed just two cities in the state—Bloomington and West Lafayette—to escape a limit on rental inspection fees. The court’s recent ruling was that the special rental fee legislation is not constitutionally permissible.

Three short-hand references in the Bloomington annexation case might be helpful in following the arguments:

  • Section 23 refers to Article IV, Section 23 of the Indiana State Constitution, which reads: “In all the cases enumerated in the preceding section, and in all other cases where a general law can be made applicable, all laws shall be general, and of uniform operation throughout the State.” It’s often described as a prohibition against special legislation.
  • Section 19 refers to Article IV, Section 19 of the Indiana State Constitution, which states, “An act, except an act for the codification, revision, or rearrangement of laws, shall be confined to one subject and matters properly connected therewith.” It’s sometimes called the “single subject clause.”
  • Section 161 refers to Section 161 of Public Law 217-2017. That Public Law was the budget bill for 2017. Section 161 reads in part: “(d) An annexation ordinance that is introduced after December 31, 2016, and before July 1, 2017, that proposes to annex property to which this section applies is void and the annexation action is terminated. A municipality may not take any further action to annex any of the property to which this section applies until after June 30, 2022…”

Constitutional Claim: Section 161 Violates Section 23 

Section 161 has the form of a “general” law—that is, it describes criteria for the kinds of annexations to which the law applies, but does not name Bloomington specifically. When the criteria in Section 161 are applied, however, Bloomington’s annexation effort is the only one meeting the criteria.

But Holcomb is not trying to defend the legislature’s action against the claim of unconstitutionality by arguing it’s a general law that doesn’t apply just to Bloomington. In fact, Holcomb acknowledges: “Section 161…though textually general, affected a particular place, namely Bloomington’s annexation of unincorporated areas of Monroe County, and therefore seems to constitute special legislation.”

Holcomb gives arguments that Section 161, which affected just Bloomington’s annexations, is nonetheless constitutional under Section 23. Those arguments hinge on the tests that have been set forth in previous Supreme Court cases.

Likewise, the City of Bloomington is not claiming that Section 161 is unconstitutional merely because the legislation affected Bloomington alone. Bloomington’s argument is based on the idea that Section 161 cannot possibly satisfy criteria set forth by Indiana Supreme Court precedents on permissible special legislation.

The Supreme Court’s opinion on Hammond vs. Herman & Kittle gives a detailed history of Section 23 and its precedents. Here’s a key takeaway from that opinion:

So, what can be distilled from this review of Article 4, Section 23 case law? In sum—that the constitutionality of special legislation hinges on the uniqueness of the identified class and the relationship between that uniqueness and the law. More specifically, a special law complies with Article 4, Section 23 when an affected class’s unique characteristics justify the differential treatment the law provides to that class.

Here’s a taste of the kinds of issues under dispute on the Section 23 claim.

On the Supreme Court’s analysis, it’s Holcomb who bears the burden of establishing that Bloomington’s unique characteristics justify the differential treatment.

Bloomington’s unique characteristics, according to Holcomb, include the “urgency” with which Bloomington approached the proposed annexation. Also counting as unique, according to Holcomb, is Bloomington’s extensive use of remonstrance waivers.

Bloomington counters those claims of uniqueness by saying that there was nothing particularly “urgent” about the city’s process, because it fell within statutorily required timeframes for annexation processes. And the use of remonstrance waivers is simply a legal mechanism provided by the annexation process, not a unique characteristic of Bloomington justifying the enactment of special legislation, according to the city.

Constitutional Claim: Section 161 Violates Section 19

Bloomington’s claim that Section 19 is violated by the Section 161 legislation is not based merely on the idea that material like Section 161 isn’t normally included in the state’s biennial budget bill. The Supreme Court has ruled in the past, for example, that including the elimination of Marion County teachers’ collective bargaining rights in a bill that addressed regulation of state and local administration was consistent with Section 19 even if the connection between the two subjects was “tenuous at best.”

Bloomington contends that there’s not even a tenuous connection between Section 161 and the biennial budget: “Section 161 does not have even a remotely tenuous connection or relationship to, or any rational unity with the budget bill to which it was attached.”

Holcomb finds a connection between annexation of land into a city and the biennial budget as follows: “Because the annexation of property by a political subdivision will necessarily alter the tax burden of the residents within the annexed property and the revenue collected by the municipality, Section 161 concerns budgeting and public expenditures.”

Tuesday’s Hearing

These and other issues are expected to be argued by both sides at the March 26 hearing before Judge Nardi. Tuesday’s hearing is scheduled to start at 1 p.m. at the Charlotte Zietlow Justice Center, 301 N. College Ave. in downtown Bloomington. The session is open to the public.