State Politics

Idaho Treasurer calls lawsuit over office space a Constitutional invasion

Exterior of the Idaho State Capitol in Boise.
Exterior of the Idaho State Capitol in Boise. Statesman file

An Idaho District Court judge will now have to decide whether or not top legislators can even bring a lawsuit against the state treasurer without both the House and Senate signing off on the case.

House Speaker Scott Bedke (R-Oakley) and Senate Pro Tem Brent Hill (R-Rexburg) brought the lawsuit against Treasurer Julie Ellsworth this summer after negotiations over her office space at the Capitol broke down.

Lawmakers gave themselves control over most of the floors of the building in 2007, including where Ellsworth’s office is. Former Gov. Butch Otter let the bill become law without his signature at the time.

Legislators want her to move so they can expand their own offices and those of their staff.

Ellsworth’s lawyer, former attorney general David Leroy, argued in court Thursday that the two men couldn’t bring the lawsuit because the full Legislature didn’t authorize it.

Because of that, Leroy has asked for the case to be dismissed.

But Bedke and Hill argue that they absolutely have the right to file a lawsuit since they say Ellsworth is violating state law that the entire Legislature passed more than a decade ago.

Both sides also argued on the merits of the case, which aren’t being taken into consideration at this time.

Leroy called the effort to evict the treasurer “mischief” that “invades the constitution” in an attempt to upend the separation of powers among the three branches of government.

“Herein, the Legislature attempts an incursion into executive authority” that gives Ellsworth the power to choose where her office will be located, Leroy said.

The Idaho Constitution, he said, lets her establish her office anywhere within Ada County, though he admitted to Judge Nancy Baskin that the state’s founding document didn’t specifically outline that it had to be at the Capitol.

“The treasurer insists she’s above the law,” said Newal Squyres, an attorney for Bedke and Hill.

While the fight has dragged on for months, Squyres said his clients “have suffered an injury because they can’t act” on expanding office space for the more junior members of the House of Representatives.

The case has drummed up critics questioning the necessity of a lawsuit over office space for a part-time Legislature. In a statement, Bedke said he agrees it’s “ridiculous.”

“But, when an elected official refuses to follow state law, there is something much larger at stake. Perhaps the treasurer will listen to the court when it declares that she is bound by the law, which we fully expect to happen,” he wrote.

Baskin said she would issue a written decision on the motion because of the likelihood that it would be appealed to the Idaho Supreme Court. It’s unclear when that decision will be released.

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