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The Supreme Court Chamber in the Minnesota Capitol in St. Paul. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)
The Supreme Court Chamber in the Minnesota Capitol in St. Paul. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Supreme Court: Vetoes valid, now go to mediation

Sidestepping a final ruling, the Minnesota Supreme Court has ordered Gov. Mark Dayton and the Minnesota Legislature to give mediation a go as they attempt to work out their funding impasse.

But in a major victory for Dayton, the high court overturned a district court ruling by validating Dayton’s May 30 line-item vetoes. Those vetoes zeroed out the entire $130 million biennial budget for the Minnesota House and Senate, and a lower court had ruled them unconstitutional.

The governor said he intended the vetoes to force lawmakers back into a second special session and pare down their $650 million tax bill, which he had already signed. He also wanted them to jettison two approved policy measures — a ban on driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants and a teacher licensure reform measure.

GOP legislative leaders refused, opting to sue. They prevailed in Ramsey County District Court. Dayton then appealed to the Supreme Court.

The high court’s order does not indicate how the court’s six justices voted. It was signed by Chief Justice Lorie Gildea and issued Friday afternoon and notes only that Justice David Stras took no part in it. He was recused.

Dayton, reacting late Friday, said he was “pleased” by the decision. Despite his big win, however, the story does not end here, the order says.

The Minnesota Constitution requires that three distinct branches of government continue to function. Yet the way the impasse has played out, the order indicates, doubt is cast on whether the Legislature can continue functioning. That threatens Minnesotans’ right to a functioning government.

The order makes clear that the court does not feel comfortable unilaterally resolving the matter. “The other branches should resolve these doubts through the political process,” the order states. “Thus far, they have not done so.”

The order then addresses the stipulation that both sides agreed to on July 31. In that instance, Ramsey County District Court Chief Judge John H. Guthmann granted temporary funding for the Legislature either until Dayton’s appeal was decided or until Oct.1, based on 2017 funding levels.

Gildea’s order expresses serious doubts about the legality of that stipulation, and by extension the insistence of Dayton’s attorney, former Associate Supreme Court Justice Sam Hanson, that courts are always available as a safe haven for any branch of government denied core funding.

While Minnesotans’ interests are obviously at stake in keeping the lights on at the Capitol, the order says, Article XI of the Minnesota Constitution grants no authority for “a judicial funding remedy.”

“In fact, our cases suggest that the Judicial Branch does not have the inherent power to appropriate money,” Gildea writes.

The judicial branch must proceed cautiously and with respect for the constitution’s plain language, the order says. “Further, a proper respect for our co-equal branches of government counsels that we intervene in their dispute only when absolutely necessary.”

The issue, therefore, is not yet fully resolved and will “require additional input from the parties to decide the case.”

Therefore, the court ordered both sides “to participate in good-faith efforts” to resolve the impasse through mediation. They are ordered to notify the court who that mediator will be no later than 4 p.m. on Sept. 12. On or before Sept. 30, they must give the court a status report on those efforts.

By Sept. 15, the parties must file informal memos advising the court whether it was constitutional for the Judicial Branch to order funding for the Legislature after June 30, when the last biennium ended. It will also address potential remedies to end the dispute.

That same day, joint statements must be filed to update the court on how much money the Legislature has in carryforward funds, and the dates by which they will be exhausted based on actual monthly expenses from July 1, 2017, through Sept. 1, 2017, and anticipated expenses through Jan. 1, 2018.

“I remain ready and very willing to engage in those negotiations immediately,” Dayton said in a written statement. “I have asked my legal team to contact their legislative counterparts to begin to resolve this matter.”

‘Confused’ ruling

David Schultz, the Hamline University political science professor and court watcher, called the ruling an oddity.

“It’s a very strange and confused decision,” Schultz said. “And it really sounds like it was an incredibly compromised decision. I don’t see it as a really coherent decision.”

Schultz said that he suspects that the four Dayton appointees might have been poised to make what he called “a straight political decision.”

“I think there was concern that if they did that, it would explode,” Schultz said. “So there is some effort here to tone it down by saying we’re not completely sure that the governor wins outright.”

If so, the professor said, he is not sure that the court fully succeeded. “I actually see it as a very political decision.”

About Kevin Featherly

Kevin Featherly, who joined BridgeTower Media in mid-2016, is a journalist and former freelance writer who has covered politics, law, business, technology and popular culture for publications and websites in the Twin Cities and nationally since the mid-1990s.

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