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In Indiana, a high-powered legal battle over authority pits attorney general against governor

Todd Rokita says Gov. Eric Holcomb is trying to use the courts to expand his authority with a lawsuit challenging the powers legislators gave themselves during the pandemic.

Is Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb trying to expand his his powers with a lawsuit he filed to block a new law giving state legislators more authority to intervene during public emergencies declared by the governor? Attorney General Tom Rokita, a fellow Republican but a political rival, says he is.
Is Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb trying to expand his his powers with a lawsuit he filed to block a new law giving state legislators more authority to intervene during public emergencies declared by the governor? Attorney General Tom Rokita, a fellow Republican but a political rival, says he is.
Darron Cummings / AP

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana’s Republican attorney general and its Republican governor are at legal odds over the governor’s authority.

Attorney General Todd Rokita argues in new legal filings that Gov. Eric Holcomb is wrongly trying to use the courts to expand his powers with a lawsuit challenging the authority that state legislators have given themselves to intervene during public emergencies.

Holcomb asked a judge last month to block a new law passed by the Republican Party-dominated Indiana Legislature giving broader emergency authority to lawmakers.

They did so following criticism from conservatives over a statewide mask mandate and other COVID-19 restrictions that Holcomb imposed by issuing executive orders that don’t require their approval.

Todd Rokita, Indiana’s attorney general.
Todd Rokita, Indiana’s attorney general.
Darron Cummings / AP

Rokita, a past and possibly future Holcomb political rival, says in the court documents that he is within his legal authority to turn down Holcomb’s request to take the dispute to court after the legislature overrode the governor’s veto of the new law.

Rokita’s court filing repeatedly calls the governor’s lawyers “unauthorized counsel” ans seeks to have them removed from the case.

“It is no small thing for one branch of government to drag another branch of government to account before the third branch of government,” the attorney general’s court filing said. “No constitutional provision secures to officials of any branch such extraordinary power.”

Holcomb’s lawyers responded that Rokita — who is Indiana’s top legal officer — was making “absurd” arguments that he alone has the legal authority to represent the state in court and can decide whether the new law is constitutional.

John Trimble, Holcomb’s lead lawyer, referred questions to the governor’s office, which didn’t reply to a request for comment.

In the view of the governor and some legal experts, the state constitution doesn’t allow the new process under which legislative leaders could call the Indiana General Assembly into what it calls an “emergency session.” The governor’s lawsuit argues that the legislature is “usurping a power given exclusively to the governor” under the state constitution to call lawmakers into a special session.

Rokita sought the Republican nomination to run for governor in 2016 but lost to Holcomb and is widely seen as wanting to succeed the term-limited governor after the 2024 election.