INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana Supreme Court faces a “political” decision that will be known in the next three weeks: What to do about Attorney General Curtis Hill?
Former justice Myra Selby determined a 60-day suspension in light of his 2018 sine die party horndogging, in which he was accused of groping a Democratic legislator and three staffers. She also recommended no automatic return to office. Indiana law requires the AG to be “duly licensed to practice law in Indiana.”
In Selby’s words, “By seeking and accepting the responsibilities of the office of Indiana attorney general, (Hill) undertook to conduct himself both officially and personally in accordance with the highest standards that the citizens of the state of Indiana can expect.”
So if the Supremes accept Selby’s recommendation, Hill “likely would be forced to immediately vacate his office because he no longer could practice law,” wrote Northwest Indiana Times reporter Dan Carden.
This has never happened since the 1851 Indiana Constitution became the law of the land.
And it begs all sorts of questions. Is the alleged behavior by Hill that kind for which any other lawyer in Indiana would be disciplined? Over the years, we’ve seen aberrant behavior by attorneys who were also legislators. If Hill is to be held to a different standard than other attorneys, such a result will raise interesting and difficult questions for all attorneys who are elected or appointed officials and admitted to the practice of law. What is the relevant standard for those attorneys?
Terre Haute attorney Jim Bopp Jr., a former Republican National Committeeman, argues, “He should not be treated more harshly because he is a public official. That’s the job of the voters. When people do things in office, they’re judged by the voters.”
And fresh off President Trump’s impeachment acquittal in the U.S. Senate, one of the chief restraints of Republican “jurors” was their reluctance of overturning the will of the people. Indiana is one of 43 states to elect their attorney general.
Those Republican officials who have called for “zero tolerance” on sexual harassment and assaults willfully greet President Trump at the airport and take the stage with him despite some two dozen allegations of such behavior from an array of credible victims, including a former Miss Indiana.
Should Attorney General Hill be held for a different standard than President Trump? In 2016, a clear majority of Hoosiers voted (including the evangelical wing) for Trump despite these troubling proclivities.
The Hill dilemma could reach a crescendo in June if he is nominated for a second term. That might produce the awkward moment of the GOP ticket on stage, hands joined and raised, which probably won’t happen if Hill is renominated.
Gov. Eric Holcomb, then as a top aide to Gov. Mitch Daniels, knows all too well about such a moment. Republican delegates rebuked Daniels at the 2008 convention in a year he was reelected by a landslide, nominating Greg Zoeller over Daniels’ preference, Valparaiso Mayor Jon Costas. It was a lesson Holcomb would not forget. Thus his reluctance to anoint a Hill challenger.
The 2016 Indiana Republican Convention delegates did not have a stellar year. Not only did they select Hill, they also nominated Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, who went rogue on the GOP’s orthodoxy on school vouchers, joining then Democratic gubernatorial contender Eddie Melton on a listening tour last summer and dallying with a potential lieutenant governor nomination before he exited the race in January.
A different route for the governor could be to exert pressure on the Supreme Court, via the Judicial Nominating Commission, of which the governor has three of the seven appointments. The JNC did Gov. Mike Pence’s bidding when it circumvented the Supreme Court selection of Peter Rusthoven as one of three nominees. Rusthoven’s political sin had been his testimony against the constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage.
House Speaker Brian Bosma, who joined Holcomb’s call for Hill to resign in July 2018, acknowledged the dilemma and lack of “clarity.” He told the Associated Press, “I will publicly ask for them to give clarity to the state on the issue rather than making someone file (a lawsuit) for clarity after the fact.”
The AP also reported that the governor’s lawyers are reviewing the situation.
Here at the apex of the of GOP super majority rule, when it holds all the state constitutional offices, both General Assembly chambers, nine of the 11 congressional seats, 80% of county offices, 90% of county commissioners, a historic number of city halls, and is home to the U.S. vice president, the Hill dilemma is conspicuous.
Attorney General Hill finds significant support on the social conservative wing of the party. He presided over the South Bend “funeral” of 2,400 fetal remains last week from the Dr. Ulrich Klopfer tragedy, and has a penchant of filing pro-life amicus briefs at the federal level.
So Hill is not going to go quietly.
That’s why I term the coming Supreme Court verdict on Hill political. It won’t alter the balance of power in Indiana. But as the party’s only minority officeholder in the Statehouse, he has created the proverbial elephant on the table.