Attorney General Lori Swanson and attorneys for the Dayton administration sparred Friday morning before court-appointed Special Master Kathleen Blatz as mid-shutdown wrangling over essential state services got underway at the Minnesota Judicial Center.
Dozens of petitions from interest groups around the state are expected to be heard in the coming days as Blatz hears arguments from beneficiaries of the many state services left off Ramsey County Judge Kathleen Gearin’s ruling earlier this week. A full slate is expected to carry on through the afternoon today and into Tuesday and Wednesday after the July 4 holiday.
But it was the difference between Swanson and the administration that marked the proceedings early Friday, as questions over the scope of Blatz’s role took center stage. At its heart is the question of whether Blatz has been charged with simply applying and carrying out Gearin’s ruling, which spelled out a full list of essential services — much of which was adopted from Dayton’s petition itself — or whether she has the authority to deem others above and beyond that designation as essential.
Attorneys for the Dayton administration argued that Blatz’s role is simply to execute the Gearin order, thus leaving her range of discretion much narrower than the leeway enjoyed by 2005 Special Master Ed Stringer, who was empowered to pro-actively deem services essential. Swanson and Solicitor General Alan Gilbert, on the other hand, argue that Gearin’s ruling is not an exhaustive list of what portions of state government will remain online through a shutdown and instead should be seen as a partial list meant to be augmented as needed to meet its stated goals of protecting public safety and protecting other necessary services.
“There have been some difference of viewpoint,” Dayton attorney David Lillehaug said early in the proceedings Friday.
For her part, Blatz gave little indication of how she saw her role and instead sought input from both the attorney general and the administration. Blatz also said Gearin may issue an order clarifying that question as soon as today.
The difference between Swanson and the Dayton administration positions was most apparent as a petition from the Association of Residential Resources in Minnesota was taken up Friday morning. The organization, which provides community-based health care to vulnerable Minnesotans, contended that while the funding for its actual services had been cleared to continue amid a shutdown, there were other functions such as background checks and licensing issues handled by the Department of Human Services that were not. Without those, the group said, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to continue its work.
ARRM made the case that if its work was essential it made sense that any program that was required to allow that work to continue would also be essential. Swanson agreed.
But Dayton attorney Joseph Cassioppi pointed out that Gearin’s ruling adopted the definition of core services laid out in Dayton’s filing with the court, noting that the services ARRM sought to continue were not included in the most urgent designations and, in turn, not seen as essential. Adding programs, services or operations to that list would be beyond the scope of Blatz’ authority, Cassioppi concluded.
“The governor is reading Judge Gearin’s ruling far too narrowly,” Kevin Hofman, an attorney for ARRM, replied.
Eventually, Blatz simply asked both sides for their take on what the scope of her role should be in the proceedings. Gilbert said her role is “much, much broader” than the Dayton administration was arguing, adding that the governor’s position was “not supported at all” by the Gearin ruling.
“The judge has made it very clear that [Blatz] can hear any issue,” Gilbert said. “That’s the whole purpose of this hearing.”
Lillehaug clearly sought to strike a balance between advocating for Dayton’s position without torpedoeing efforts from women’s shelters, nursing homes and similar services to stay operational through a shutdown. “I’m certainly very sympathetic to the testimony of these folks,” he said. “There is also, however, Chief Judge Gearin’s order where she is essentially adopting the governor’s list.”
Lillehaug also asked that the question of Blatz’ authority remain an open one through the proceedings, a suggestion Blatz allowed, at least until Gearin clarifies her opinion.
“This is more art that science,” Blatz said.