BOISE — The civil suit over office space at the Idaho Capitol will go before a judge at the end of this month.
Idaho’s legislative leaders, who sued the state treasurer, are asking the court if they can force the treasurer to vacate her space.
In June, House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, and Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, in their official capacities, filed suit against state Treasurer Julie Ellsworth. The lawmakers claimed Ellsworth was disobeying state statute when she refused to move the treasurer’s office from the Capitol at the Legislature’s request, to make room for more offices for House members and staffers.
The Legislature didn’t designate funding for the new offices this past session, but Bedke and Hill contend that doesn’t matter — they cited a 2007 law allowing the Legislature to decide what is done with the Statehouse’s first, third, and fourth floors. The treasurer’s office is located on the first floor. Ellsworth’s refusal to obey their request constituted a violation of that law, they argue.
“The House suffers from a shortage of office and other space that hinders its members’ ability to discharge their legislative duties,” according to a motion filed Friday by the legislators’ attorneys. “Plaintiffs intend to use space on the first floor of the Capitol currently occupied by the treasurer’s office to help alleviate this shortage.”
Ellsworth, who is represented in the suit by David Leroy, a former Idaho attorney general, claims the location of her office is necessary for her and her staff members to do their job. The office is near a massive vault, Ellsworth explained in a statement, which the treasurer’s office uses often. In addition to that, the legislators don’t have any ability to sue the treasurer in their official capacity, Leroy argued in a motion in August — that would require a resolution from both houses of Idaho’s government.
Leroy filed that motion in August, asking 4th District Court Judge Nancy Baskin to dismiss the case against the treasurer. On Friday, attorneys for the legislators filed their own motion asking the judge to hear the matter. In that motion, they argued, the lawmakers had a right to ask the judge to simply declare what their rights were as leaders of the Legislature, and whether they could, legally, order the treasurer to leave her office space.
“Contrary to the treasurer’s contentions, the speaker and pro tem have standing under the Idaho Declaratory Judgment Act because they have been delegated authority under the statute and are being thwarted by the treasurer’s actions,” according to Friday’s motion.
The Idaho Declaratory Judgment Act, added to the state’s laws in 1933, gives judges the power to “declare rights, status, and other legal relations,” regardless of whether they make any other orders in a case. It simply gives judges the power to clarify a law — as in the 2007 law which Bedke and Hill say gives the Legislature control over the Statehouse’s first floor.
The law doesn’t require the treasurer’s office to be in the Capitol building itself, according to Friday’s motion — the office simply has to be in “the county where the seat of government is located.”
The treasurer’s interpretation of the law would establish a dangerous precedent, the motion argued.
“The treasurer’s position would lead to the absurd result that she could claim any state office space in the Capitol as her official domain (with the power to evict the House and Senate from their chambers in the exercise of her purported constitutional prerogative to establish her office location),” according to the motion.
The lawmakers tried to negotiate with the treasurer before the lawsuit, according to the motion. They offered “without any obligation to do so” to let certain members of the treasurer’s office stay in their current office space. The treasurer refused, according to the motion.
In simply providing an opinion on the law, the motion argues, Baskin wouldn’t be expressing a political viewpoint.
“By issuing a declaratory judgment, the court is not telling the legislative department or the treasurer where to locate her offices, but rather issuing an opinion on the extent of the authority granted to the legislative department by the statute,” the motion reads.
The case is scheduled for a hearing on Oct. 31 and, according to the motion, that hearing is necessary to resolve the dispute.
“There is an impasse between the parties,” according to the motion.