Circuit Court Judge Louis Rosenberg dismissed state Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s lawsuit against the Indiana State Board of Education today, saying she could not initiate a lawsuit without consulting with Attorney General Greg Zoeller.
Ritz last month sued the other 10 members of the Indiana State Board of Education objecting to their effort to enlist legislative leaders to help calculate A to F grades for public and most private schools. Board members had complained Ritz was not working fast enough to issue the grades for schools; she said she had to wait for more data.
After Friday’s state board meeting, Ritz said she had not determined her next move.
“This case was filed because I believed the board took illegal action outside of the public arena and that needed to be stopped,” she said. “I am disappointed in today’s ruling and concerned for all Hoosiers that have their lives affected by unelected boards, particularly those that act, perhaps, in secret.”
The suit was the apex of a long-running series of disputes between Ritz, the only Democrat in statewide office, and the rest of the board, all of whom are appointed by Republican governors.
The suit argued that the board’s letter to legislative leaders violated the state’s transparency laws. By jointly signing it, Ritz argued, the board effectively made a decision outside of a public meeting, which her suit contended a violation of state law.
But Zoeller quickly moved to have the suit dismissed by arguing Ritz could not use Indiana Department of Education lawyers to file the suit. Zoeller argued that Ritz could only initiate a lawsuit with assistance from his office.
Rosenberg agreed. In his decision, he said Ritz’s arguments were “not consistent with the underlying purpose” of state law and that Zoeller’s arguments were “more plausible.”
Rosenberg specifically rejected the argument that requiring Ritz to seek Zoeller’s representation would strip her of her right to enforce state transparency laws.
“The only fact that is clear on this topic is that the attorney general did not give his written consent to the plaintiff to retain counsel other than from his office,” Rosenberg wrote.
The court said there was no legally significant difference between this case and a 1978 case cited as a precedent in which courts nullified a governor’s effort to hire an outside lawyer in a case against the Alcoholic Beverage Commission.
State board member David Freitas said the news of the dismissal was a relief.
“I’m just glad the lawsuit is over and we are moving back into serving the needs of Hoosier children,” he said. “It’s been distracting.”
The suit does not rule out the possibility that Zoeller could choose to represent Ritz in the suit, but he has said he would not. It’s also possible another Indiana citizen could bring a similar suit.
UPDATE: StateImpact Indiana reports four citizens, including two ex-superintendents, have filed a similar complaint against the state board with the Public Access Counselor, a public office that considers complaints on governmental transparency issues.