Minn. SC dismisses lawsuit over budget impasse

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Dec 2, 2011



ST. PAUL, Minn. (Legal Newsline) - The Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday dismissed as moot a petition filed by a group of Republican state senators looking to block a lower court from authorizing any spending during a government shutdown.

In June, Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson asked the state's high court to dismiss "in its entirety" the petition for writ of quo warranto by the four state lawmakers, which argued a district court judge can't OK spending if Minnesota's government had to shut down because of a deadlock over the state's budget.

Swanson, a Democrat, argued state spending amid a government shutdown is constitutional and that the district court not only has the authority but the obligation to preside over the civil action and to adjudicate the "respective powers and obligations of the different branches of state government."

In July, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, also a Democrat, and the GOP-controlled Legislature couldn't come to an agreement over the state's future two-year budget cycle.

A government shutdown then lasted 20 days before the Legislature passed appropriation bills for all state agencies. The bills were signed into law by Dayton on July 20.

Republican state Sens. Roger Chamberlain, Warren Limmer, Scott Newman and Sean Nienow had filed a petition with the Court looking to block the Ramsey County District Court from authorizing any spending during the shutdown. The senators had argued that the state can only spend money if the allocations are signed into law.

Because the lawsuit wasn't resolved before the end of the shutdown, the justices, in an order filed Aug. 30, ordered the parties to show cause why the matter should not be dismissed as moot.

"We agree with the petitioners that the questions presented in this case are important ones that have statewide significance to the people of Minnesota, and that this case is functionally justiciable in the sense that 'the record contains the raw material... traditionally associated with effective judicial decision-making,'" Chief Justice Lorie S. Gildea wrote for the majority.

"We nevertheless conclude that we should not exercise our discretion to make an exception to the mootness doctrine in this case."

The Court said the legislative and executive branches have the ability to put mechanisms in place that would "ensure that the district court is not again called upon to authorize expenditures by executive branch agencies in the absence of legislative appropriations, even if a budget impasse were to occur."

"Resolution of these budget issues by the other branches through the political process is preferable to our issuance of an advisory opinion adjudicating separation of powers issues that are not currently active and may not arise in the future," it wrote.

Justice Alan Page dissented, saying that by failing to address the questions posed by the petition relating to the separation of powers, the Court "creates the perception -- if not condones the reality -- that the judicial branch has violated both constitutional provisions."

Page said he wasn't optimistic that the other branches of government could resolve the problem on their own.

"For the third time in a decade it fell to a single district court judge in Ramsey County to decide which state agencies -- if any -- would continue to operate and, by extension, which functions -- if any -- the state government would continue to perform," he wrote.

The state came close to a shutdown in 2001, had one in 2005 and then another this year, Page noted.

"Even if there is never another budget impasse, the authority of the district court to do what it has done in this and the previous impasses must be addressed," he wrote.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by e-mail at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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