State’s first brief now filed with Indiana Supreme Court in appeal of lower court decision on special Bloomington annexation law

After a couple of quiet months, late July has brought some activity in the legal proceedings about the state legislature’s enactment of a 2017 law, as a part of the biennial budget bill. The law blocked specifically Bloomington’s attempt in 2017 to annex some land into the city.

For Beacon R Map County with Annexation area shownlawsuit articleXXX
The green area is the total of a few separate annexation areas proposed by the city of Bloomington. The basic outline shape is the boundary of Monroe County.

Indiana’s attorney general has filed the first brief on behalf of Gov. Eric Holcomb, in an appeal to the state’s Supreme Court, which seeks to overturn a lower court ruling made earlier this year in April. The lower court ruling, in favor of Bloomington, found that the law violates two parts of the state’s constitution: the prohibition against special legislation; and the single subject rule.

After the state’s notice of appeal was filed, a four-week extension was granted by the court for filing the state’s first arguments. The deadline was this past Thursday, which is when the state’s first brief  was filed with the Supreme Court.

The basic arguments in the state’s brief are familiar from the lower court proceedings. First, the state thinks the question of constitutionality is moot, because Gov. Holcomb should not have been named as the defendant in the case. He’s not the right defendant, because he does not enforce the annexation law, according the the state.

Who should the city have named instead in its lawsuit? The state’s answer is that the City of Bloomington should have sought a declaratory judgment against “property owners in the annexed areas [who] would seek to use the Annexation Law to block its annexation.”

During the lower court proceedings, the question of Holcomb as a proper defendant was already appealed to the Court of Appeals and that court did not find the state’s argument compelling.

Of the two constitutional questions, the state’s arguments on the single-subject rule are simpler. Indiana’s constitution requires that legislation be confined to a single subject.

The state contends that the annexation law enacted by the legislature in 2017 was appropriate to include in the biennial budget bill, based in part on the idea that “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.” And the state points to previous court rulings that take a “laissez-faire” approach to the question of single-subject, and that uphold connections between subjects that are “tenuous at best.”

The constitutional question concerning special legislation is more complex. Indiana’s constitution prohibits special legislation. But the fact that a law affects only one municipality is not enough to make it non-permissible special legislation. It’s not disputed by the state that the 2017 annexation law affected only Bloomington, and was intentionally designed that way.

One of the state’s arguments relies on the same precedent (Dortch v. Lugar 1971) that allowed for the Unigov plan for Indianapolis and Marion County. From the state’s brief: “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.”

A second argument by the state, that the 2017 annexation law is permissible special legislation, hinges on the idea that Bloomington’s situation was unique and therefore warranted special legislation. That argument has two prongs. The state contends that Bloomington’s proposed annexation was marked by an “undue sense of urgency.” And the state contends that Bloomington over-used remonstrance waivers in setting the boundaries of the areas it planned to annex.

The city’s reply to the state’s brief is due in about three weeks. That’s based on the
order granting the extension for the state’s first brief, which also cited the court rule (Appellate Rule 57(D)) that regulates the timeframe for the city’s reply. According to that rule, the city of Bloomington’s attorneys have to respond to “no later than twenty (20) days after the Petition is served.”

Court filings for the appeal of Bloomington’s annexation case can be downloaded at mycase.in.gov, using the case number 19S-PL-00304.

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