Minnesota courts are deluged with shutdown cases

Petitions from all sides ask courts to either take a specific action or refrain from acting.

In the tricky world of government shutdown, Minnesota courts are being pulled into a big political, legal and constitutional mess.

Separate appeals to the Ramsey County District Court and state Supreme Court have asked the courts to: appoint a mediator, not appoint a mediator, order the governor to call a special session, approve state spending even though the Constitution says that is the Legislature's job and not approve any state spending unless it's mandated by the Constitution or statute.

Meanwhile, the court system is petitioning itself for funding even if government shuts down. That one forced a district court judge to recuse herself and ask for a retired judge's help to decide the case.

"It is constitutionally tricky," said Fred Morrison, University of Minnesota constitutional law professor. "It is legally tricky."

At the core of the morass is a simple failure. The Legislature and the governor are supposed to agree on a budget by June 30. So far, that task, in the face of a $5 billion deficit, has evaded their grasp. Without a budget agreement, government will begin to shut down July 1.

While both sides have busily engaged in recrimination -- and occasional negotiation -- they also have brought their problems to the courts to guide them through something that may or may not happen.

The result is a rousing battle over separation of powers.

"This is an exciting set of issues," said Morrison.

Gov. Mark Dayton filed a petition last week asking the courts to appoint a mediator in the Capitol budget fight. Dayton cited "serious constitutional and statutory" concerns over doing otherwise. But the governor also outlined his view of what services should continue in a shutdown.

On Tuesday, the Minnesota House moved to weigh in on what will already be a very crowded Ramsey County District Court hearing on shutdown litigation. The House plans to ask the court to ensure it has access to its bank funds if government closes next month. House officials also plan to ask that the court not appoint a mediator in the budget dispute, said House Majority Leader Matt Dean, R-Dellwood.

The Minnesota Senate approved diving into the legal battle last week but has not yet fleshed out its request.

A group of state senators that on Monday asked the Supreme Court to limit shutdown spending to those things required by law, the constitution or federal mandates is now asking Ramsey County District Court to force Dayton to call lawmakers back into special session -- a decision that has always fallen exclusively to the governor.

"It's a big legal and constitutional mess," said Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, an attorney who does not plan to file legal papers in the shutdown cases. "We're to the point of absurd arguments and we're at the point where the Constitution no longer functions."

Those involved say in court documents and political speeches that they would rather avoid the mess and strike a budget deal.

Legislative leaders and Dayton, who spent Monday in a war of accusations, will try again to do that in a closed-door meeting at the Capitol Wednesday afternoon.

Shutdown-related arguments are scheduled to be heard in Ramsey County District Court on Thursday morning.

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • Twitter: @rachelsb

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