The split July 26 Supreme Court ruling in State vs. Kirby was notable not just because if figures to force District Courts to give lighter sentences to some drug offenders convicted in early 2016. The 4-3 decision also was one in which Gov. Mark Dayton’s four court appointees split cleanly with the three holdovers from the Tim Pawlenty era.
Of course, that’s not unheard of—there was a similar split on July 12 in Montemayor v. Sebright Products, Inc., an industrial products liability case. What makes Kirby really unusual is that it didn’t just pit Dayton’s appointments against Pawlenty’s appointments. It pitted Dayton’s justices against Dayton himself—or at least his administration.
In Kirby, the state argued that Minnesota’s Legislature, in passing its 2016 drug-sentencing reforms, intended to abrogate the amelioration doctrine. In other words, Dayton’s team argued, lawmakers had no intention of reducing sentences for people already convicted. The law was to impact only those whose offenses occurred after it went into effect.
Led by Associate Justice David Lillehaug, however, the Dayton appointed judges disagreed. As a result, some folks whose cases were still in the appeals pipeline when the reforms got enacted on May 23, 2016, likely will get lower sentences than the ones they originally received.
‘I really haven’t recalled too many situations where we have seen straight party-line—or let’s say in this case straight gubernatorial-line—voting on cases,” said David Schultz, the Hamline University political science professor and court watcher. “If this is a harbinger for the future, that’s really kind of interesting to think about here.”
It is dangerous if not ludicrous to extrapolate from a single case. But it’s no stretch to wonder whether Kirby might signal that the court will prove more liberal than Dayton, a governor Schultz describes as “pro-business, liberal Democrat” who is only “OK, but not great, on civil rights.”
The professor has no solid read on Dayton’s due-process stance. “But if I look at the people that he is appointing, I think they’re going to be further to the left of him on just about all of those issues,” Schultz said.
There is also this: After having already made a record-setting 134 statewide judicial appointments, Dayton’s Supreme Court majority figures to expand at least once more before his term ends. Associate Justice David Stras, a Pawlenty appointee, has been nominated by President Donald Trump for a seat on the federal bench.