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Dayton loses line-item veto fight in district court

In a resounding defeat, a judge Wednesday ruled that Gov. Mark Dayton’s line-item vetoes defunding the Legislature violated the Minnesota Constitution’s separation of powers clause.

In his ruling, Ramsey County District Court Judge John H. Guthmann wrote that Dayton’s May 30 vetoes, which withheld $130 million in biennial funding from the House and Senate, are “unconstitutional, null and void.”

Several hours after the ruling came down, Dayton vowed to appeal the case to the state Supreme Court.

The vetoed appropriations, which Dayton extracted from the state government finance bill that he otherwise signed, will now go into law with the rest of the bill, Guthmann ruled.

With the exception of a stipulation already agreed to by the litigants, action on the two remaining counts against Dayton in the suit is stayed until appellate review is completed and rulings issued, Guthmann said.

In addition to seeking a declaratory judgment that Dayton’s line-item vetoes were invalid, the Legislature’s GOP leadership sued for an injunction and a writ of mandamus to force Minnesota Management and Budget to allot the two chambers sufficient funds to meet their financial obligations.

Guthmann already resolved those complaints at least temporarily by issuing a June 27 injunction granting the Legislature $16 million to keep operating until at least Oct. 1, while he considered the legality of Dayton’s vetoes.

In his ruling Wednesday, Guthmann said the case presented “a stark illustration” of the “irreconcilable conflicts” involved in applying the constitution’s separation of powers clause.

“When the positions of the legislative and executive branches are examined in isolation,” Guthmann wrote, “it is easy to see why each branch believes it should prevail.”

Dayton’s attorney, ex-Supreme Court Justice Sam Hanson relied on the “explicit and unqualified” language of the state constitution, Guthmann notes.

The Legislature, meanwhile, pointed to the constitution’s separation-of-powers clause, which blocks one branch of government from nullifying another and narrowly construes the governor’s veto authority.

“The challenge for the court is the fact that both positions are technically correct,” Guthmann wrote. “Resolving this issue of first impression requires moving beyond the veneer of the parties’ arguments.”

Guthmann’s decision in the Legislature’s favor rests in part on an apparent acceptance of attorney Doug Kelley’s argument on behalf of lawmakers that Dayton had failed to “object” to the appropriations he vetoed.

Kelley argued in court on June 26 that the word “objection” is embedded in the 1876 amendment that established Minnesota’s line-item veto. The term disappeared in a 1974 rewrite, but the fundamental “objection” requirement remained, Kelley argued.

Because Dayton included full Legislature funding in his own proposed budget, Kelley argued, he clearly did not object to the $130 million appropriation for its own budget. Guthmann appeared to agree.

“Requiring a relationship between the purpose of the veto and the vetoed appropriation in no way limits the governor’s authority to influence policy legislation as contemplated by the constitution,” Guthmann wrote. “The governor may always use his general veto power to veto any bill that contains policy provisions to which he objects.”

Guthmann noted concerns from the governor’s legal team that prohibiting the line-item veto would shift the balance of power toward the Legislature, granting it license to engage in unlimited pork-barrel spending.

“The court’s ruling is by no means intended to prevent governors from issuing a line-item veto of the Legislature’s appropriation, if they actually object to the manner in which the Legislature funded itself,” the ruling says.

Likewise, the judge wrote, the ruling does not kill the governor’s use of the line-item veto as a cudgel to coerce lawmakers into enacting policy, so long as that veto “does not nullify or effectively eliminate a branch of government or a constitutional office.”

The judge shot down Hanson’s argument that a court review of the line-item veto’s constitutionality itself represents a separation of powers violation.

He noted that in another portion of his argument, Hanson denied that the veto was a separation-of-powers violation because the Legislature can always turn to the courts to plead for core operations funding.

“For this reason, the governor’s argument that a reviewing court’s consideration of his motives represents a separation of powers violation is incongruent,” the judge ruled.

In the end, Guthmann ruled, Dayton improperly used his line-item veto by effectively eliminating a coequal branch of government.

“Therefore, under the unique and limited circumstances of this case, the governor’s line-item vetoes of the Legislature’s appropriations offended the separation-of-powers clause of the Minnesota Constitution,” Guthmann wrote. “They are null and void.”

Fight will continue

Dayton was just wrapping up a press conference Wednesday when the ruling came down. When asked about it, he halted the briefing, saying he could not comment until he had “digested” the ruling.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, was not so reticent. Speaking to reporters on the Capitol steps a short time later, he called the ruling “the right decision.”

“Unfortunately, we had to go to court to right this wrong,” the speaker said. “But we are happy for Minnesotans that their voice here at the Capitol has been restored.”

Speaking before Dayton announced plans to appeal, Daudt strongly urged Dayton not to go that route.

“I think the governor did not have a strong case from the very beginning,” Daudt said. “I think this is the sort of thing they teach in law school to new attorneys as an example of something being unconstitutional.”

In a written statement Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, offered the same input.

“The governor should accept this verdict and allow the people of Minnesota to move on, instead of continuing to waste taxpayer dollars on expensive litigation,” Gazelka said.

However, Gazelka wrote, the Legislature is willing to take the fight to the Supreme Court.

Daudt questioned Dayton’s wisdom in ever pursuing the case. “Nobody I have talked to thought that the governor would win,” he said.

He apparently never spoke with state constitutional expert Mary Jane Morrison, a retired Mitchell Hamline School of Law professor.

Several weeks ago, Morrison said the governor was on solid legal ground. She maintained that the constitution’s line-item veto clause does not limit the governor’s veto authority over appropriations, though she conceded that other constitutional clauses resonate and could be used to limit Dayton’s power.

“I am sorry that the governor lost so easily,” Morrison said Wednesday. “That is just my view.”

Speaking before the governor announced his intention to appeal, Morrison expressed the hope that he would. “This may not be the end,” she said. “If I were among his lawyers, I would urge him to pursue that.”

Dayton says he will.

“Today’s district court ruling is only a preliminary step in this case’s judicial process,” Dayton said in a written statement.

“The stipulation, which the House, Senate and I filed with the district court judge in June states, ‘The parties agree to jointly seek accelerated review by the Minnesota Supreme Court of the District Court’s order or judgment,’” Dayton wrote.

“Accordingly I have asked Sam Hanson, my legal counsel, to appeal this decision to the Minnesota Supreme Court,” Dayton said.

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