Galen Robinson has devoted much of his quiet legal career to taking on landlords who don't return deposits and lenders who target low-income people who are in a financial bind.

On Monday, the legal aid attorney known for his trademark ponytail will aim a little higher -- a state Supreme Court showdown with lawyers for Gov. Tim Pawlenty, whom Robinson is suing over unilateral cuts to a state nutrition program for the ailing poor.

Robinson and his small legal team are challenging a signature political move of Pawlenty's, that, if the challenge succeeds, could dial back the governor's budget-cutting authority and lay down a bolder line between legislative and executive powers.

DFLers howled last summer when Pawlenty unilaterally cut or shifted $2.7 billion without their approval, but they went no further.

Instead, it fell to one of the state's lowest-paid attorneys to do what legislators would not: File a lawsuit that challenged the constitutionality of Pawlenty's actions.

"It's David and Goliath," said Fred Morrison, a constitutional law expert at the University of Minnesota Law School.

In this case, David is a chatty "child of the '60s" who lives in Minneapolis' Seward neighborhood. A compact 5-foot-7, Robinson prefers to bike to work. His boyish face and round eyeglasses make him look younger than his 57 years. Since 1970, he's worn his hair in a ponytail more often than not.

Born in Illinois, Robinson considers his Peace Corps stint in Zaire a transformative period that set the course of his life's work.

"I had a strong desire to help people, but I decided I wanted to do it back home," he said. As a second-year law student in Illinois, Robinson volunteered at a local legal aid office.

"It was an instant fit," he said. "I liked using my ability to help people, and it became a driving force in my life."

After law school, he worked in Oklahoma, handling divorces, consumer and migrant issues and in 1984, landed at a legal aid office in Little Falls, Minn.

"I've always been about giving people open access to courts," he said. "I like to bring that to people who don't have it."

A couple of years later, he took a job with legal aid in Minneapolis, dealing with a range of low-income legal issues like consumer and housing law. Eventually, he became litigation director with Mid-Minnesota Legal Assistance.

"This is what he's always wanted to do," said Jeremy Lane, executive director of Mid-Minnesota Legal Assistance. "There's no burnout issue with Galen. He's just as engaged, with his heart and soul, as when he got here."

Robinson also works as an adjunct professor at William Mitchell College of Law, where he teaches classes on advocacy and courtroom strategy.

Genesis of a lawsuit

Co-workers were not surprised when Robinson and a couple of other legal aid attorneys got a strange feeling toward the end of the 2009 legislative session. Around that time, Pawlenty, who pledged never to raise taxes, was signing spending bills the state couldn't afford.

They started to hear rumblings about an emergency budget-cutting maneuver called unallotment.

"A couple benefits attorneys said, 'What is this?'" Robinson said. "I took it upon myself to see what it was. We just wanted to know."

In June, after lawmakers adjourned, Pawlenty announced he would wield his unallotment authority to cut money for the poor, for local governments and colleges and universities. It struck Robinson and others as odd that Pawlenty imposed the cuts at the beginning of the two-year budget cycle. In their view, Pawlenty had created the financial crisis when he signed the appropriations bills and later vetoed the tax bill that was to have paid for the spending.

"It looked like many of the cuts would affect our clients," Robinson said. "We looked for ways to challenge it."

Among the cuts imposed was the elimination of a small nutrition program for medically prescribed diets to some of the state's poorest, sickest residents.

Six of the clients in that program joined the lawsuit that Robinson filed.

Standing in a Ramsey County courtroom in November, facing Pawlenty's best attorneys, "we realized the Supreme Court might be in the future," Robinson said.

'No greater gift'

Ruth E. Ulvog, who is on the special-diet program, praised Robinson for taking on the state.

"No greater gift can be given to those who are or have been marginalized by society than to know that there is an individual who believes they are entitled to have their cases be heard and their right to survive defended," she said.

Legal experts can't recall the last time a legal aid attorney sued the governor.

The state Supreme Court only takes 30 to 40 civil cases a year, so "that makes it special," said Peter Knapp, a William Mitchell professor who tracks the court.

Larry McDonough, a friend and fellow legal aid attorney, said Robinson is up to the task.

"Galen's got a very good sense of what he knows and what he doesn't, what he can do and what he can't," McDonough said. "He's less likely to be swimming in waters where he shouldn't be swimming."

Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288