Tuesday, February 24, 2009

History of the Indiana General Assembly: The Story of Senator Nelson Grills

In the late 1980s, I had a jury trial against an attorney by the name of Nelson Grills. It was an eminent domain case and the issue was the value of an old railroad easement being taken. While the subject matter of the lawsuit was boring, I found Grills, who by then had to be pushing 80, to be fascinating. I later discoered that Grills, a former state senator, wasn't just telling tall tales about his former political career. He indeed had led fascinating life. From the book, The Centennial History of the Indiana General Assembly by Justin E. Walsh:
It might be said that Senator Nelson G. Grills made a career out of being a maverick. he first gained notoriety as a lieutenant commander in the United States Navy's Lighter Than Air Division during World War II. In July, 1943, as skipper of the only blimp in naval history to attack an enemy submarine, Grills was shot down by German off the coast of Florida and spent nineteen hours in the water before being rescued. Since blimps were not supposed to attack submarines, the Navy spent years trying to decide whether to give Grills a court-martial or a medal. In 1961, it finally decided on the latter, the Distinguished Flying Cross.

After the war, Grills moved from Hammond to Indianapolis and became active in the Democratic party. Beginning as a precinct vice-committeeman, between 1952 and 1956 he served as Marion County and eleventh district Democratic chairman. He also served as minority attorney in the state House of Representatives in 1953. In 1958, Grills was elected to the first of two terms in the state Senate. During his years in politics, according to an Indianapolis journalist, he "managed to make just about everyone mad at least once. He admits this has not been easy to do." Many thought that, for him, it had been. In his first term as senator, Grills proved that one man could indeed make a difference in the General Assembly. In the process of adding the word "grillibuster" to the lexicon of the General Assembly, Grills alienated almost every colleague on both sides of the aisle, the state leadership, and a governor of his own party over the reapportionment issue.

Grills began his fight for equal representation in 1959 by introducing a bill for numeration leading to reapportionment. But the rural-dominated reapportionment committee refused to meet, let alone approve the bill. In retaliation, on February 20, Grills invoked the long-ignored provision of the state Constitution that every bill be read aloud, word for word. Thus was born the "grillibuster," a nine-day period during which the Indiana Senate ground to a halt. On the first day a drone of voices - four clerks reading portions of each bill simultaneously - transformed the chamber into a modern Tower of Babel. Grills said he would demand a full airing of every bill until the apportionment committee released his measure. Committee chairman Willis K. Batchelet of Angola refused to budge, stating that if Grills succeeded he would "set a precedent that would light a fire and burn the Statehouse down." While Grills did not have arson in mind, he did intend an inflammatory battle of words to wear down his colleagues. On February 22, with as many as eighteen senators reading aloud their own bills, a steady attack was loosed on Grills from both ides of the aisle. Outside the Senate, Grills received support. "That Stubborn Mr. Grills" was praised in an editorial by the Indianapolis Times: "If the Indiana General Assembly won't [obey the Constitution] then who will?" On February 28 Grills bowed to pressure from his fellow Democrats and ended his "grillibuster." He vowed to continue his fight for the next two years, however, and predicted that the 1961 legislature would abide by the long-ignored reapportionment requirement.
As the session progresses, I intend to share other interesting stories about the history of our General Assembly.

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