Indiana counties are asking the state Supreme Court to restore their right to fire employees without having to defend it in court.
The Fayette County Commissioners fired county highway supervisor Howard Price nearly three years ago. A lower-court judge and the Indiana Court of Appeals have ruled Price is entitled to ask the courts to review the decision.
The commissioners argue removing an agency head is an executive decision, one where they have near-absolute discretion.
The Association of Indiana Counties is joining Fayette County in fighting the case, warning a ruling in Price‘s favor could hamper the authority of county governments statewide. The association says it may seek help from legislators if the case goes against them.
Price‘s attorney Ryan Sink agrees the commissioners could have just summarily fired Price and left him with no recourse to the courts. But Sink says the county created the right of appeal by treating the decision like a court hearing.
“It’s pretty unusual what happened here,” said Sink. “You had 14 witnesses show up at two executive sessions prior to terminating Mr. Price. There were hours and hours of testimony, pages and pages of notes.”
Several justices sounded skeptical. Chief Justice Brent Dickson suggests Sink is in effect encouraging governments to conduct business in secret, a step he called “absurd” and “disturbing.”
State law provides for a court appeal when commissioners act “quasi-judicially,” calling witnesses and weighing evidence. The Indiana Court of Appeals ruled in 1987 that applies even in an employment case.
Attorney Rosemary Borek argues the appeals court in both cases got so bogged down in details that it lost sight of the larger picture. She says judicial review should apply in property-rights cases, for instance, but says hiring and firing is a purely executive function.
“When there’s no property issue I don’t think it matters so much how the commissioners conducted the proceeding,” says Borek.