A much-anticipated legal showdown in Minnesota's bitter partisan staredown over the state budget resulted in a split decision Thursday morning.
Ramsey County District Judge Kathleen Gearin rejected Gov. Mark Dayton's request that she appoint a mediator to resolve the yawning gulf between the Democratic governor and the Republican-controlled Legislature on how to close the state's $5 billion budget deficit.
She also rejected an argument by four GOP senators that she should order Dayton to call a special legislative session, a prerogative reserved to the governor, but left open the possibility that the senators could continue to argue their position.
The downtown St. Paul courtroom was jammed past overflowing with more than 200 people, including about four dozen lawyers representing everyone from Dayton, Attorney General Lori Swanson, legislators, cities and school boards.
If Dayton and GOP legislative leaders can't reach a budget agreement by July 1, many state government functions will start shutting down.
In her opening remarks, Gearin encapsulated the chaos that has engulfed the state Capitol for weeks, saying "heads are spinning" across Minnesota. Unlike thebrief, limited government shutdown in 2005 and the threat of one in 2001, "this is unique, a far more sweeping issue, a far more significant crisis," Gearin said.
She said she has been inundated by a tsunami of legal filings from countless parties with a stake in the shutdown that "there's no way I can deal with all the motions that were introduced today."
She added: "The clock is ticking. The clock is ticking."
Regarding Swanson's request that she appoint a special master to oversee a shutdown and determine which government employees are essential, Gearin said "that special master will have a far more restrictive" mandate than in 2001 or 2005. "I'm not happy about this," she said, saying such limits are dictated by the constitution.
David Lillehaug, the attorney representing Dayton, unsuccessfully argued that appointing a mediator would ease the path toward "a balanced compromise" on the budget. Former Supreme Court Justice Eric Magnuson, representing the House Republican caucus, said a mediator would be "unprecedented, antithetical to the constitution and flat wrong."
Arguing for the four senators' demand that a special session be ordered, attorney Fritz Knaak said the budget impass "goes away if the governor calls a special session.... he has a duty to call a special sessaion."
Addressing an unrelated issue in the case, Lillehaug called it "the oddest platypus I've ever seen" -- a description Knaak agreed with.
Concluding the morning session, Gearin urged the governor and legislators to keep their communications lines open. "Please keep talking," she said.
She also opened the courtroom to cameras for the afternoon session.