The Center Square: Greater government accountability comes to Indiana

April 22, 2024 | By KILEEN LINDGREN

As the legislative session unfolded in Indianapolis, a theme emerged – the government must be more accountable to the people.

Gov. Eric Holcomb’s recent signing of a suite of new bills ensures that Indiana’s courts and executive agencies are serving their proper roles and not abusing their power. Hoosiers across the state will benefit from these reforms.

House Bill 1003, brought by Rep. Gregory Steuerwald, ensures the deck is not stacked in favor of government agencies and ensures Indianans get their fair day in court in three important ways.

It requires judges to decide cases based only on the law. They must not defer to government agencies’ interpretations of statutes or regulations. It raises the burden of proof for agencies in court. It also strips authority from agencies to rewrite decisions of independent administrative law judges, so agency heads can’t interfere with or undo the outcome.

For decades, judges at the federal and state levels have wrongly deferred to regulatory agencies’ interpretations of state laws, agency regulations, and agencies’ factual determinations when bringing enforcement actions against Americans. In showing “deference,” judges abdicate their duty to “say what the law is.”

This goes against the adversarial system of adjudication that has been central to American legal tradition for centuries. Judges must not only hear both sides of a case before making a decision; they must listen without systematically favoring any party. Courts should be in the business of adhering to their constitutional duties, not colluding with government agencies.

With HB 1003, Indiana joins the states pushing back against the unconstitutional tide that has flooded the nation since the Supreme Court’s infamous Chevron decision in 1984. The Court is poised to overturn “Chevron deference at the federal level,” but states must ensure their own courts act fairly and justly.

In another win for accountability, Senate Bill 004, sponsored by Sen. Chris Garten, implements legislative oversight of agency rulemaking and raises burdens on agencies to show their work when proposing or implementing new rules.

Too often, administrative agencies with insufficient democratic controls exceed their role to fill small gaps in regulatory schemes. Instead, they write rules with the force of law that have sweeping social and economic consequences – including imposing significant civil or even criminal penalties on businesses and individuals.

Writing law and setting broad social and economic policy is the duty of the legislature. SB 004 ensures agencies stay within the bounds of their delegated authority and don’t issue burdensome rules that would not pass the legislative process.

Finally, Senate Bill 234, also championed by Garten, enacts reform to emergency powers. This bill is simple but important. It limits a governor’s initial emergency declaration to 60 days, and it requires legislative approval to renew for another 60 days. It also requires that new declarations be “wholly unrelated” to ensure this executive power is not abused.

Article 3 of Indiana’s Constitution provides for “three separate departments” of government and their “distribution of powers.” SB 234 ensures this constitutional distribution is respected in emergency situations and that the checks and balances of state government work in tandem for the good of the people of Indiana.

Emergencies may need quick responses from an executive official, such as a governor or department head. But legislators must fulfill their duty to the people as representatives who make law. This protects each co-equal branch of government at crucial moments of decision-making.

As James Madison said, “Allowing powers to accumulate in any government body is “the very definition of tyranny.” The separation of powers is crucial to liberty, and these new laws will bolster the Hoosier State’s separation of powers.

This op-ed was originally published in The Center Square on April 11, 2024.