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John Krull commentary: Indiana Supreme Court ends a tragic farce

The members of the Indiana Supreme Court did what they are supposed to do.

They preserved the Indiana Constitution and, one hopes, put an end to foolishness for a time.

The court ruled unanimously in favor of Gov. Eric Holcomb in his dispute with the Indiana General Assembly over an inane law designed to curtail the governor’s ability to deal with emergencies.

The lawmakers—who, like Holcomb, are Republicans—passed a measure that would allow them to call themselves into session even though the state constitution clearly states that it is the governor’s prerogative to call the legislature into session.

Holcomb vetoed the measure on the grounds that it was unconstitutional. The legislators then overrode Holcomb’s veto, which set up the court battle.

The lawmakers’ motivation for pushing for the measure was that they were angry. They were mad about the fact that Holcomb treated the COVID-19 public health crisis as if it were, well, a crisis.

Their preferred solution to the problem was to pretend it didn’t exist and hope it just would go away on its own.

To make clear that they were unhappy that Holcomb had acknowledged reality, they decided to attack his powers as governor.

Many of the legislators who launched the attack like to call themselves “strict constitutional constructionists.”

Perhaps that is true—if by “strict constructionist” they mean they like to interpret the constitution strictly to mean what they wish it did, rather than what the document actually says.

An argument between a governor and lawmakers of his own party over whether fact or fantasy should prevail and whether legislators just to get to make up powers for themselves already was strange.

It didn’t seem there was a way to make it any stranger.

Enter Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita.

Rokita inserted himself into the dispute by arguing—I kid you not—that he could represent both the governor and the legislature in the fight, as well as serving as the arbitrator of the quarrel.

In other words, he wanted to be the lawyer for both the prosecution and the defense—and serve as both judge and jury, too.

Modest and shy, the man isn’t.

Before the judicial branch dealt with the substantive issues in this silly constitutional crisis, it devoted time to dealing with Rokita’s pretensions. The court’s response was the judicial equivalent of outright laughter, a dismissal of his claims that stopped just short of disciplining the attorney general for grandstanding in a manner damaging to the legal profession.

Now, months later, the court also has treated the lawmakers’ arguments with the same sort of curt disapproval, thus giving their position all the respect it merited.

This whole episode might be dismissed as the equivalent of dinner-theater farce, if not for a couple of things.

The first and most important of these is that Hoosiers were dying while the legislators and the attorney general tried to tie the governor’s hands so he couldn’t prevent still more deaths from occurring. That our healthcare system was strained to the breaking point and too, too many Hoosier families were grieving did not deter the lawmakers and Rokita from playing games and trying to invent an alternate reality.

It’s one thing to indulge in political power plays during normal times.

It’s another thing altogether to do so when lives are at stake.

The other fact that makes this whole absurd episode disturbing is its sheer wastefulness.

Because some legislators felt their fantasies weren’t being given the proper deference, they started a fight that consumed the time and energy of all three branches of Indiana’s state government during a time when we Hoosiers face genuine problems.

These lawmakers—and Rokita, for that matter—decided Indiana could afford to engage in silliness during the middle of a crisis.

There’s always a cost to such foolishness.

Sometimes, it’s paid in cash.

Sometimes, it’s paid in missed opportunities.

Sometimes, it’s paid in lost lives.

And sometimes—as it likely was in this case—it’s paid in all three ways.

Thank goodness the members of the Indiana Supreme Court did what they are supposed to do.

Thank goodness they put an end, for a time anyway, to nonsense.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. The opinions expressed by the author do not reflect the views of Franklin College.