On Thursday morning, oral arguments will be heard by Indiana’s Supreme Court in the case involving Bloomington’s constitutional challenge to a 2017 law that suspended its in-progress annexation process.
Bloomington won a favorable ruling on both of its constitutional arguments in the lower court. Briefly put, the court agreed with Bloomington that the law was impermissible special legislation and that it violated the single-subject rule.
It’s Gov. Eric Holcomb, the defendant in the case, who has appealed to the state’s highest court.
People who want to watch the city argue the case in front of the state’s highest court can watch the online video stream on Thursday, Jan. 9, starting at 8:58 a.m. That’s two minutes before the five justices are scheduled to hear arguments.
City attorney Mike Rouker will present Bloomington’s case, as he did during the lower court hearing in late March last year.
In the 40 minutes of scheduled proceedings—20 minutes to a side—it will be the state’s team that goes first. In the Monroe County circuit court proceedings, deputy attorney general Julia Payne argued the governor’s side, although solicitor general Thomas Fisher was present at the hearing.
If the five-judge Supreme Court panel is seated as it was at last year’s hearings, from left to right will appear: Mark Massa, Steven David, Loretta Rush, Christopher Goff, and Geoffrey Slaughter. Rush will be in the middle as chief justice.
Neither the city nor the state filed a motion asking for oral arguments to be held. But the Supreme Court’s order, signed by Rush on Nov. 13, states, “The Court has determined the above-captioned case merits oral argument.”
What exactly is the case about? The state legislature incorporated a law on annexation into its biennial budget bill for 2017. The new law effectively ended the process Bloomington was working through at the time to add geographic area to the city.
In May 2017, Bloomington filed suit challenging the law on two separate constitutional grounds—that it violated the state constitution’s single-subject rule, and that it violated the constitutional provision against impermissible specific legislation.
The Monroe County circuit court’s ruling, made in April of this year, was in favor of Bloomington on both of its constitutional arguments.
During the trial, the state appealed to Indiana’s Court of Appeals a ruling made by the lower court during local proceedings. It was the state’s motion to dismiss, based on the idea that Bloomington had sued the wrong person in naming Gov. Eric Holcomb as the defendant. The Court of Appeals upheld the lower court ruling and the case proceeded.
The state has appealed all three points of law to the Supreme Court: the appropriateness of Holcomb as the defendant, the single-subject rule and the prohibition against impermissible specific legislation.
Final briefs were filed with the Supreme Court at the end of September.
In the state’s final brief, the state reviewed the same three basic points of the appeal: Bloomington’s lawsuit is against the wrong person (Gov. Eric Holcomb); the law enacted by the state legislature is permissible special legislation under the state’s constitution, because Bloomington has unique characteristics; and the annexation law was appropriately a part of the biennial budget bill, because there’s a reasonable basis for putting it there.
Governor as defendant
The state’s contention that Holcomb can’t be the defendant in such a case was decided by the Court of Appeals during the lower court proceedings—in Bloomington’s favor. But the state is appealing on all possible grounds. If the Supreme Court were to decide the state is right about Holcomb being an unsuitable defendant, the other two questions would be of academic interest.
So the state’s final filing devoted seven pages to arguments that Holcomb was the wrong person to sue.
According to the state’s analysis, the governor is the wrong person to sue because the governor does not enforce the state’s annexation statute. The state contends that only if the governor were responsible for enforcing the annexation statute would he be an appropriate defendant. Bloomington should have instead sued landowners who would have been annexed, the state says. From the state’s papers: “Indeed, Bloomington could have named a defendant class of all landowners who would remonstrate.”
Bloomington’s position is that if Bloomington had sued such private citizens, the city would have had to make the “preposterous allegation that [private citizens] could somehow address the constitutionality of special legislation.”
On the question of special legislation, there’s no dispute that the 2017 annexation law applies uniquely to Bloomington. The legal question is whether the special legislation is permissible, based on previous cases. Central to the arguments is the 1971 case that allowed the creation of Unigov for Marion County (Dortch v. Lugar). The state contends that: “Like Unigov, the Annexation Law is about maintaining the current structure of government in Bloomington and Monroe County, not about annexation process.”
Among the previous cases to which the two sides are giving different interpretations is Dortch v. Lugar (1971), which allowed for the Unigov plan for Indianapolis and Marion County to be implemented.
In its brief, the State of Indiana says the outcome of Dortch means that the legislature can use a special law to allow the merger of city and county government—so it follows that the legislature can use a special law to prevent that kind of merger: “If, as Dortch holds, the legislature could use a local and special law to merge the municipal and county governments in Indianapolis, it could also use a local and special law to prevent the merger of Bloomington with areas of Monroe County proposed for annexation.”
Bloomington’s response to the State of Indiana’s analysis of that precedent reads in part:
…the State erroneously claims that Dortch v. Lugar…mandates, in every case, the survival of targeted legislation that “affect[s] local government structure” … Nonsense. No precedent, whether Dortch or any other case, supports the notion that special legislation is always permissible as long as it somehow involves the subject of local government organization.
A bit later, on a similar point, Bloomington’s response brief reads:
In effect, the State argues that [the constitutional prohibition against special legislation] should never apply to legislative enactments related to local government organization. This proposition is outlandish.
A conceptual point drawn out by Bloomington’s response brief is a difference between unique “characteristics” of a municipality—which could warrant targeting of special legislation—and an “activity” in which a municipality has engaged.
Among the “activities” the State of Indiana is analyzing as “characteristics” are: Bloomington’s use of remonstration waivers and the timeline it used for its annexation procedures. Those activities fell within the narrow legal constraints of Indiana’s annexation law, Bloomington says in its brief, so they cannot be analyzed as unique characteristics of Bloomington as a municipality.
From Bloomington’s response:
The only alleged traits cited by the State are not inherent characteristics at all. Rather they are activities—Bloomington’s careful, legal adherence to the strict procedures set forth in the annexation statute. Nor are these alleged “characteristics” unique to Bloomington.
The third point of the appeal deals with Bloomington’s claim, supported by the circuit court, that the 2017 annexation violated of the constitutional requirement that legislation be confined to a single subject. The state contends that incorporating the law suspending Bloomington’s annexation efforts into the biennial budget bill is consistent with the single-subject rule, because of previous cases that set the following standard: There just has to be “a reasonable basis for grouping together in one act various matters of the same nature, and the public cannot be deceived reasonably thereby.”
The “reasonable basis” put forward by the state for grouping the annexation law into the biennial budget bill is that the bill deals with “matters affecting specific localities reasonably related to local taxation, appropriations, disbursements, and state and local operations.”
The state’s reply also cites legislative rules, for both the House and the Senate, that are designed to prevent the amendment of legislation with items that are not “germane” to the bill to be amended. Because the annexation law was added as an amendment to the biennial budget bill, and passed muster as “germane,” it would amount to judicial meddling in the legislature’s internal affairs for the Supreme Court to rule in favor of Bloomington, according to the state.
Bloomington says 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.”
In its papers, Bloomington also disputed the connection claimed by the state between the annexation law and the budget based on a factually incorrect portrayal of the way county taxation works:
…the State claims that following annexation “most importantly, the municipality, rather than the county will collect taxes on the property located in the annexed area…” This is false. By law, county taxes must be levied at a uniform rate on landowners throughout the county, without regard to whether landowners are within the corporate boundary of a city or town.
Bloomington’s papers say it spent $824,733.26 on its annexation plans before the 2017 legislation ended those efforts. That’s the amount paid to outside parties, and does not include the work of the city’s legal staff.
Court filings for the appeal of Bloomington’s annexation case can be downloaded at mycase.in.gov, using the case number 19S-PL-00304.
Previous coverage by The Beacon: Bloomington v. Holcomb.
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