Friday, May 9, 2014

Zoeller and the unstated agenda

Posted By on Fri, May 9, 2014 at 4:00 AM

Greg Zoeller would deny to his last breath that he's anything resembling a partisan conservative religious activist. But like all attorneys general, from Washington, D.C., on down, Indiana's top lawyer has made political choices that carried him beyond the confines of disinterestedly minding the store.

His bizarre suggestion the other day that the 17th Amendment be retooled to allow state legislatures to nominate U.S. Senate candidates was just the latest instance of the folksy gent's compulsion to leap onto the national stage as a voice of Bishop Sheen's America. It's pure tea party, and pure bad news for poor and nonwhite voters, who are all but shut out of state legislatures. And the rationale he offered was not legal, but flatly political - making senators more wary of angering states; as in state officials, rather than state citizens.

He's also sued the Internal Revenue Service to prevent Hoosiers from obtaining health insurance subsidies under the Affordable Care Act, seizing upon a soft spot in the law that his fellow Republicans in Congress and in various states have used to raise the tenuous issue of unfair taxation. Arbitrary and cruel punishment for thousands of our neighbors in dire need, if he wins; but a point is made, and points are scored.

A number of Indiana school systems, sadly, have sued the feds as well, seeking to avoid penalties for failure to cover their employees, as opposed to covering their employees. It is touching to see the attorney general fighting in their corner; but I imagine they would have preferred that his party in the legislature and governor's office fund them adequately to begin with rather than bleed their budgets to subsidize religious schools via vouchers.

Zoeller's office vigorously defended the education voucher law, of course; just as it held the fort when schools in low-income communities sued for equitable state funding. A reliably conservative Indiana Supreme Court took Zoeller's side in both instances; but the constitutional arguments against state financing of religion and against disparities in education support are strong in Indiana's case and have prevailed in other states.

Be that as it may, did Zoeller have no option but to defend his employer? Hardly. In a rare departure for him ideologically, he warned the legislature several years ago he could not defend part of State Sen. Mike Delph's immigration bill because it sought to usurp federal responsibility. Could it have been a coincidence that his own Catholic church, chief beneficiary of the voucher law, was also a leading opponent of crackdowns on immigrants?

Just saying. Zoeller has waged unrelenting assaults on Planned Parenthood, not only (futilely) defending a preposterous state law denying them federal funding but advocating legislation as well. He's gone even farther with another religious cause, expending this state's time and money enlisting in California's (futile) attempt to ban same-sex marriage. Anyone who believes the latter was a matter of purely legal obligation should read his amicus brief about the divinely ordained purpose of marriage. Legal theory from a burning bush.

Long before the IRS lawsuit, back in the dawn of Obamacare, Zoeller took the state into battle, arguing essentially that Hoosiers were being stuck with an unfunded mandate. When I asked him, rhetorically, whether unfunded/unwanted federal mandates were anything new, he acknowledged they were not. I agreed with him that this fact alone did not invalidate the remonstrance; but I could hardly dismiss the timing and the occupant of the White House. Oh, and did I mention birth control and the Catholic bishops?

Zoeller is selective, just as his brethren, in their refusal to defend Republican laws against gay marriage on the one hand, or their taking up arms against Democratic laws extending health care on the other, are selective. I don't care for his selections, for the most part; but this is Indiana, 2014. I'll never forget how appalled I was to hear his predecessor and mentor, Steve Carter, rain fire and brimstone down on homosexuals during a "marriage defense" rally in the Statehouse rotunda a few years ago. It's hard to be appalled any more, but I do get annoyed when my lawyer tries to kid me.

Dan Carpenter is a freelance writer, contributor to The Indianapolis Business Journal and the author of "Indiana Out Loud."

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