Minnesota Legislature gets upper hand in recent court decisions

  • Article by: JIM RAGSDALE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 4, 2012 - 12:47 PM

The latest Supreme Court ruling, on proposed constitutional amendments, was called a "huge victory" over the executive branch.

Minnesotans like to criticize the Legislature and mark it down in popularity polls, but last week's Supreme Court decision on constitutional amendments tells another story.

In the continual struggle for power, the Legislature is riding a winning streak.

Last Monday, the state's highest court maneuvered around the DFL secretary of state, a member of the executive branch, and found that the sole authority for putting hot-button issues to the voters is the Legislature, currently controlled by Republicans.

"It's definitely a huge victory for the legislative branch," said Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-St. Louis Park, a lawyer who serves as assistant House minority leader. Added Sen. Dave Thompson, a Republican lawyer from Lakeville: "It's pro-Legislature, pro-Constitution."

It also is the third executive branch smackdown by the courts in two years.

In April, a Ramsey County District judge said DFL Gov. Mark Dayton committed an "unconstitutional usurpation" of the Legislature's authority when he ordered an election to determine whether child-care workers wanted to unionize.

In 2010, when Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty faced a DFL-controlled Legislature, his use of the power to unilaterally reduce spending was shot down by the state Supreme Court.

"It would appear the court may be more interested in exercising oversight over executive officials, and this should be welcomed by the people," said Erick Kaardal, who represented legislators in their Supreme Court victory last week.

Minnesota continues to have an executive branch invested with considerable power. But the courts have sent out a reminder that power is divided for a reason.

Civics lesson

The division of power among the executive, legislative and judicial branches began as a protection against dictatorship and remains a living fact of life at the Capitol. It is magnified when the executive and legislative branches are politically opposed, which is another fact of life in Minnesota.

The governor and Legislature must agree to pass laws and run the state, but voters have not given control of the executive and legislative branches to one party since 1986.

The photo ID issue is a perfect example of how divided politics and separated power works.

Exercising its power, the GOP-controlled Legislature passed the photo ID/election law changes bill in 2011. Wielding his power, the DFL governor vetoed it, saying it was partisan, unnecessary and harmful. This year, the Legislature came back with another of its powers -- to submit the same package directly to voters as a proposed constitutional amendment.

That effectively trumped the governor, whose powers fall short of allowing him to block a proposed constitutional amendment.

DFL Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, an ardent foe of photo ID and an independently elected executive branch officer, followed a state law that says the secretary of state "shall provide" a title for each constitutional question. Ritchie chose titles the Legislature thought were confusing and designed to kill the measures.

GOP legislators sued. So did the League of Women Voters and other ID opponents, arguing that the Legislature's choice of words for the ballot question was misleading and designed to fool voters. The judicial branch ruled Monday in the Legislature's favor in both cases.

"The proper role of the judiciary ... is not to second-guess the wisdom of policy decisions that the Constitution commits to one of the political branches," the court said. "The people are the sole judge of the wisdom of such matters."

Tea leaf reading

Predicting trends is problematic, because the Ramsey County decision was not appealed, and the majorities on the Supreme Court shifted sides between the 2010 Pawlenty and 2012 Ritchie cases. Pawlenty's appointees mostly sided with the GOP governor in 2010, but took the side of Republican legislators on Monday.

But bringing the courts into these political disputes has become more common, elevating political fights into pitched battles over founding principles.

"I think it's fair to say that this court, the last several years, has been very mindful of the legislative prerogative," said Peter Knapp, a professor at St. Paul's William Mitchell College of Law. Knapp joined 18 other law professors in filing a brief in support of Ritchie's authority to determine the titles in this case.

Another law professor who joined in the brief supporting Ritchie, Dale Carpenter of the University of Minnesota, said, "The court has really reset the balance of power by ignoring this statute and by suggesting that legislative authority is almost exclusive."

Simon, the DFL assistant House minority leader, said the decision will accelerate legislating-by-constitutional-amendment as a means of evading a gubernatorial veto. "We now have a precedent that the Legislature can basically legislate by constitutional amendment," he said. "It's a pretty big victory."

Thompson, the GOP senator, said the decision clarifies that the Legislature is in charge of putting amendments on the ballot. "The court said, 'we're not going to let the executive branch pull that away from the Legislature,' " he said.

Power-sharing questions are baked into the system. Dayton, who supports federal health-care reform, and the Legislature, which derides it as a step toward socialism, could next clash over the creation of a health insurance exchange.

Depending on the elections in November and how Dayton proceeds, an action by the executive branch could be challenged as an overreach by an "Obamacare"-hating legislative branch.

And as was the case this week, the referee would be the judicial branch.

Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042

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