INDIANAPOLIS – The only thing clear from the Indiana Supreme Court's Monday ruling is that Attorney General Curtis Hill will be without a law license for 30 days starting May 18.
But several more questions were left unsettled – can he retain his elected post? Does a suspension impact his ability to seek reelection?
The state's highest court didn't weigh in on those.
“I accept with humility and respect the Indiana Supreme Court's ruling of a 30-day suspension of my license with automatic reinstatement,” Hill said in a statement.
Chief Deputy Aaron Negangard will assume responsibility for the legal operations of the office during the temporary suspension of Hill's license until it is reinstated June 17.
“I offer my deepest gratitude to my family, friends and the entire staff of the Office of the Attorney General,” Hill said. “My staff has worked tirelessly and without interruption and will continue to do so on behalf of all Hoosiers.”
Hill did not apologize to the four women he groped at a work-related function in March 2018, including a legislator and three staffers.
Some people believe the suspended license creates a vacancy in the office for Gov. Eric Holcomb to fill because state law says “the attorney general shall be a citizen of and duly licensed to practice law in Indiana.”
Holcomb was caught flat-footed Monday – saying his team is still analyzing the governor's legal options even though the misconduct case had been pending more than a year. In February, a hearing officer recommended a 60-day suspension.
House Republicans tried to clarify the law – with Holcomb's support – in early March, but Senate Republicans blocked the move.
“This decision bolsters the case of the victims. We find ourselves in this unprecedented time that our state's top law enforcement official has been suspended for ethical wrongdoing,” Holcomb said. “There's no good news in all of this for anyone.”
Lauren Ganapini, the Indiana Democratic Party's executive director, called Hill a disgrace.
“His conduct as an elected official was repulsive and will be a lasting stain on the office and the party he serves,” she said in a statement. “Now, the uncertainty created by his punishment could tip the state into a constitutional crisis. Over and over, Indiana Republicans failed to remove him. They now own his shameful conduct and the crisis it's created.”
The Indiana Supreme Court found in a unanimous decision that Hill committed the criminal act of battery against the four women and said Hill's license would be reinstated automatically.
Hill's attorneys said the incident was unrelated to his work and not proper for attorney discipline. But the court said Hill's own testimony brought his criminal conduct “directly within the (scope) of the performance of his professional duties. Respondent went to the party with the purpose of discussing a bill affecting his office with key legislators and nurturing goodwill.”
The Supreme Court also discussed Hill's actions following the leak of a legislative report about them. Justices said Hill was entitled to mount a defense and proclaim his innocence but that he went too far by calling the allegations “vicious” and issuing a press release attacking one victim.
“In sum, we find respondent's actions in the wake of the disclosure of the Taft Report do carry some aggravating weight, but not to an extent that entails the type of wholesale lack of insight or lack of remorse that ordinarily would prompt us to require a respondent attorney to undergo the reinstatement process in order to prove his fitness to resume the practice of law,” the ruling said.
The cumbersome reinstatement process would have meant Hill would be without his license up to a year.
Hill is seeking reelection as attorney general in the June Republican State Convention. Hill would get his license back three days before that event.
Nate Harter, Decatur County prosecutor and Republican candidate for attorney general, said Hill deserved due process and received it. The Supreme Court ruled that Hill committed a crime and violated basic ethics rules.
“Today's announcement reflects the unavoidable fact that my friend Curtis Hill has lost the trust of Hoosiers and has compromised his ability to do the important work we deserve,” Harter said. “There is simply too much at stake to risk losing the position to a liberal Democrat who will undermine our limited government, pro-life, pro-Second Amendment values. We cannot let that happen.”
Another Republican running against Hill, John Westercamp, said the court's decision doesn't change the focus of his campaign to bring broad-based, private-sector experience to the office.
“The lingering question regarding eligibility was not addressed by the Indiana Supreme Court and remains an open question,” he said.
Kyle Hupfer, the Indiana Republican Party's chairman, said, “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.”
Holcomb and GOP legislative leaders at the beginning of the scandal urged Hill to resign, but he refused. A special prosecutor chose not to bring criminal charges.
During the hearing, Hill defended his touching of the women as incidental and due to a crowded, loud bar setting.