Shutdown "special master" begins funding hearings

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  • June 30, 2011 - 5:49 PM

Acting as the shutdown "special master" former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Kathleen Blatz will start hearings Friday morning to sort through funding requests.

While the hearings will be in the Minnesota Judicial Center, they will not be court proceedings. Blatz will be seated at an table, not a formal judge's bench, with a representative from the governor's office and one from the attorney general's on either side of her. Seated at a table in front of her: the petitioner who wants to plead that their program should be funded.

Although she was just appointed by Ramsey County District Court Chief Justice Kathleen Gearin just Wednesday to sort through the requests, Blatz already has a full case load.

Already dozens of parties -- from social service agencies to horsemen -- have  filed court documents asking for funding.

Each group will get 20 minutes before Blatz to make a case.

She will start the hearings 8 am Friday and continue at 8 am July 5, after the holiday weekend. That schedule means that even petitioners who may eventually get funding will have to do without Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday.

Unlike 2005, when a special master was appointed to sort through that shutdown, Blatz has a very limited charge, according to the task set for her by Gearin, but a lot larger scope.

Six years ago, the Legislature passed and the governor signed a handful of budget bills, meaning much of what state government does already had properly appropriated funds. This time around only the tiny agriculture budget bill is law, leaving eight other areas of government -- from transportation to administration -- unfunded.

Already that's given rise to several separate lawsuits as race tracks and zoos, which would close to the public based on Gearin's order, plead for permission to stay in operation during a shutdown. The Supreme Court Thursday ruled that all those cases should be consolidated in Ramsey County.

Gearin has already told them "no" once even though she said she recognized that closure could cause them harm. Ultimately, Gearin wrote, "those concerns need to be recognized and resolved by actions of the executive and legislative branches, not the judicial branch."

Gearin separately appointed Blatz to play the role of special master to deal with the myriad of requests coming in.

"A special master creates an orderly process to resolve requests for, or objections to, funding, thereby preventing the necessity for multiple individual lawsuits," Gearin wrote in her decision appointing Blatz.

That Blatz was appointed at all was a compromise of sorts. Attorney General Lori Swanson asked Gearin to appoint a special master but appoint someone else. Gov. Mark Dayton asked Gearin to appoint Blatz as a mediator. Gearin took a little from both of their suggestions in her decision.

Blatz, a Republican, has seen compromise from all angles herself. She's a former Minnesota House member, who, when she first took office in 1979 was the youngest female lawmaker ever sworn in. She was 24 years old.

While in the Legislature, she went to law school, graduating cum laude from the University of Minnesota Law School.

She went on to become an assistant Hennepin County attorney and Hennepin County Judge before she was plunked from the district bench for the Minnesota Supreme Court by Republican Gov. Arne Carlson in 1996. In 1998, she became the first female Chief Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court.

She stepped down from the bench in 2006.

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