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Friday, June 05, 2015

Ind. Courts - Supreme Court hears Lake County election precinct law challenge

Thursday's oral argument in State of Indiana v. John Buncich (watch here) was the subject of a story by Dan Carden of the NWI Times, which includes links to the briefs and the history of the lawsuit. Some quotes from the story:

The Indiana Supreme Court provided few clues during oral arguments Thursday as to how it might rule in a constitutional challenge to a 2014 state law requiring Lake County consolidate "small" election precincts with fewer than 500 active voters.

The five justices and the attorneys for both the state, which defended the statute, and Sheriff John Buncich, who questioned it in his role as Lake County Democratic Party chairman, all seemed to agree it is special legislation, because it pertains only to Lake County.

But Deputy Attorney General Stephen Creason insisted the general constitutional prohibition on special legislation does not apply when a locality's unique characteristics warrant a special law and when a general law may cause undue harm to other communities.

"In this case, the General Assembly properly enacted a special law, because Lake County has a uniquely large problem with small precincts," Creason said.

Data presented to the high court shows Lake County has 174 small precincts out of 525 total — the most small precincts of any county in the state and more small precincts than the similarly populous Marion, Allen and Hamilton counties combined.

However, Justice Steven David noted that nearly all counties have at least a few small precincts and 28 of Indiana's 92 counties have the same or greater proportion of small precincts as Lake County.

"You would agree that Lake County is not unique, as opposed to other counties, as it relates to these precincts with less than 500; they're perhaps more unique," David asked Creason.

Creason replied that the threshold for permissible special legislation does not mandate the locality in question be a complete outlier, only that it be sufficiently different from most others to justify particular attention.

He noted, for example, most of the state gaming statutes are special legislation aimed at boosting Lake County's economic development prospects.

More from the story:
"The legislative goal here was cost savings. How is that not applicable to the other 91 counties?" Patton asked. "Every county would benefit by consolidating precincts and saving on election costs."

To which Chief Justice Loretta Rush again pointed out Lake County has the most small precincts. But Patton pushed back saying Lake County has the second largest population in the state, so it almost inevitably will have more of anything than smaller counties.

Justice Mark Massa seemed entirely unpersuaded by Patton's argument.

He said it doesn't make sense for every county to go through the time and expense of a small precinct consolidation study, as would be required by a general law, since most counties don't have a small precinct problem.

Patton said the study then could be done quickly and easily in those counties, such as Porter, which has three small precincts that are not adjacent and therefore cannot be consolidated.

Meanwhile, Justice Brent Dickson, a Hobart native, appeared unwilling to uphold Lake Circuit Judge George Paras' decision striking down the law because courts generally are expected to defer to the Legislature, unless there are no circumstances under which a law can be construed as constitutional.

A decision by the Supreme Court is expected in the next few months. However, if the justices fail to issue an opinion by Dec. 31, their ruling may be irrelevant because the small precinct section of the statute in question expires at the end of the year.

Teresa Auch Schultz reported on argument for the Gary Post-Tribune. Some quotes:
Several of the justices questioned the reason behind the lawsuit if the study could help Lake County save money.

"What is the ill here that you think needs to be protected?" Chief Justice Loretta Rush asked Patton.

"The ill is that once again Lake County is being specifically targeted...," Patton said.

Patton also argued that the deadlines placed by the state law on Lake County gave the Board of Elections essentially 60 days to go through the entire process during summer, a time when most members of the board go on vacation, making it hard for Lake County to meet the deadline.

Patton also disputed a claim by Creason that the state only enacted the legislation because Lake County had not taken steps on its own to do so. Patton said that the county has cut 30 to 40 precincts in the past few years.

In the 2014 General Election, Lake County reported 526 precincts while the 2011 General Election reported 543 precincts, according to the Board of Elections website. In the 2008 General Election, 561 precincts were counted.

The two sides also disputed whether the Board of Elections had to do more than just study small precincts. Creason argued the law stopped there, saying that the Board could choose to actually combine any precincts. Patton, however, noted that the law says the board "shall" make any changes recommended by the study.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on June 5, 2015 09:02 AM
Posted to Indiana Courts