INDIANAPOLIS — In the hours after the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission suspended Attorney General Curtis Hill for groping four women at a legislative party, there was speculation as to how Gov. Eric Holcomb would respond.
Hill said he accepted the 30-day suspension with “humility and respect.” Indiana Republican Chairman Kyle Hupfer released a statement, saying, “The Indiana Supreme Court unanimously confirmed that Curtis Hill committed battery against four female victims. Hoosiers would be best served by having a new Attorney General. I have faith in our delegates.”
Some saw it as the governor, his hands full with the coronavirus pandemic, throwing the decision to Republican convention delegates.
But that was quickly dispelled by a Supreme Court filing by the governor’s legal counsel on Tuesday seeking “clarification whether the Court’s May 11, 2020 Order suspending Attorney General Hill from the practice of law for a period of 30 days means that he is not ‘duly licensed to practice law in Indiana’ as set forth in statute.
“If Attorney General Hill does not have the requisite qualifications for the office … such that the Governor must name a successor for the remainder of Attorney General Hill’s current term,” the filing stated. “The clarifications being asked of this Court are necessary for the Governor to fulfill his constitutional and statutory obligations.”
Thus, it became clear: Gov. Holcomb is going to play hardball.
For GOP delegates who chose Hill and Supt. Jennifer McCormick in two contested convention races in 2016, it’s either an opportunity for a “do over” with two constitutional officers who went astray, or backing a popular governor in crisis.
Hill flamed out at a March 2018 sine die party when he got drunk and accosted a Democratic legislator and Republican staffers. McCormick bolted reelection, saying she was tired of “politics” after straying from the party line on such GOP pillars on school choice issues. She even flirted with joining a Democratic gubernatorial ticket with State Sen. Eddie Melton last summer.
Holcomb is already poised to pick McCormick’s successor after General Assembly Republicans shifted that office to become a gubernatorial appointee. If the Supreme Court rules that the AG’s office is, indeed, vacant for 30 days until June 17, just a day before the GOP’s virtual convention, it stands to place unprecedented power in this governor’s hands.
Hill sent a letter to delegates this week saying that while he will abide by the suspension “to reflect on lessons learned,” he would be “Standing Strong.”
“And on June 17th, I will come back stronger than ever, committed to my service to Hoosiers,” Hill wrote. “I will NEVER stop Standing Strong for the values you and I hold dear.”
He told delegates that those values include defending the right to life on abortion, as well as the 2nd Amendment, while standing “shoulder to shoulder with President Trump” as a “duly elected attorney general.”
His delegate letter takes aim at the Republican “establishment” and “moderates.”
“And I don’t need rhetoric,” Hill wrote. “I’ve got a Record!” He continued: “The people that had my back were you, the delegates. You have that power. You’re in control.”
Worth noting is that the Indiana Supreme Court is hardly a bastion of moderates. All five justices were chosen by conservative Republican governors.
That GOP “establishment” includes Gov. Holcomb, Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch, U.S. Sen. Mike Braun, then-House Speaker Brian Bosma and then-Senate President David Long, all who called for Hill to resign in July 2018. Holcomb cited “zero tolerance” for sexual harassment and assault in state government.
Gov. Holcomb has kept to that vow, dismissing Department of Child Services Deputy Director Todd Meyer for sending “creepy texts” to an intern, and Indiana National Guard Adj. Gen. Courtney Carr after a defamation lawsuit was filed by a female contractor he had had an affair with.
Between Hill’s drunken antics at the sine die party and the surfacing of a General Assembly investigation in June 2018, the attorney general reportedly had been urged by some social conservatives at the Republican Convention in Evansville to challenge Gov. Holcomb in this year’s primary, due to his support of a broader marriage plank in that cycle’s platform.
That would have been a fool’s errand, but it revealed Hill’s thirst for power.
What Republican delegates should keep in mind is that their duty is to nominate electable candidates. There can be little doubt that Hill is deeply flawed.
The two Democratic attorney general candidates see an opening. “He has embarrassed himself and the office which he holds,” said former Evansville mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel. “It is now up to the voters to hold him accountable and I will work every day through November to make sure that happens.” State Sen. Karen Tallian added, “Now it is even more imperative that Indiana women, and Indiana men who support them, must say no. Now, more than ever, we need a strong woman to be the nominee for attorney general.”
Republicans will be facing freakish headwinds this fall, with a sudden double digit unemployment rate and the dicey decision on when to reopen the economy, as well as fallout from the Trump administration’s pandemic response.
It will be fascinating to see how Hill’s appeal for political longevity will fall with Republican delegates in the next month, if he survives the Supreme Court clarification.
The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.