A sharply divided Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected a woman's argument that she should not have lost her driver's license after driving while drunk to flee her abusive husband.

In a 4-3 decision accompanied by strongly worded dissents, the court ruled against Jennifer Axelberg in a case that pitted the threat to public safety posed by a drunken driver against the danger faced by a domestic violence victim. The majority rejected Axelberg's use of the so-called necessity defense to fight the revocation of her driver's license after she was arrested on a drunken-driving charge in 2011.

The justices in the majority argued that strictly construed, Minnesota's implied-consent statute doesn't allow a driver to raise such a defense to challenge a license revocation. The letter of such a law should not be disregarded under the pretext of pursuing the "spirit" of the law, Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea wrote in her 14-page opinion.

Among the dissenters was Justice Alan Page, who wrote that the court had in essence concluded that losing the privilege to drive is a small price to pay for saving one's life. In doing so, it failed to adhere to case law and "the constitutional mandate to do justice," he wrote.

The court's decision implies "that the necessity defense is unavailable not only in cases of domestic abuse, but also in cases in which a victim's seeking refuge from a violent physical or sexual assault or kidnapping, and the court's decision thus discourages those individuals from seeking shelter in a motor vehicle as well," Page wrote.

Justices David Lillehaug and Wilhelmina Wright also wrote dissents.

Axelberg, 39, of Monticello, Minn., had a blood alcohol concentration of 0.16 percent when she drove less than a mile from a lake cabin in rural Mora to escape her drunk and abusive husband. He had her cellphone, and she has said she didn't think she could outrun him. She drove off only after he smashed the car's windshield and climbed onto the vehicle.

She was arrested on a drunken-driving charge, and later pleaded guilty to careless driving and lost her license for about six months. Her husband pleaded guilty to domestic abuse and attended counseling.

The couple are sober now and have patched up their relationship.

But even with her personal life more stable, Axelberg refused to drop her case. "I'm fighting for others who might get into this situation," she said after her December hearing before the justices. "Getting behind the wheel was a bad choice. When you have no other choice, what are you left with?"

Court sharply divided

In response to her previous appeals, the district court and the Court of Appeals ruled that the necessity defense is intended for criminal cases, not for a civil license-revocation hearing. Even in criminal cases, it applies only to emergency situations where the danger is such that a person has no choice but to break the law, previous rulings said.

The Supreme Court said in its ruling Wednesday that the implied-consent statute also limits the scope of a revocation hearing to 10 issues. Those issues range from the question of whether the officer had probable cause to believe the driver was impaired to whether alcohol concentration testing methods were reliable. The necessity defense isn't included on that list.

In the majority opinion, Gildea argued against "our dissenting colleagues" and Axelberg for calling it bad public policy to force victims of domestic abuse to choose between license revocation and personal safety. That public policy concern should be directed to the Legislature "because we must read this state's laws as they are, not as some argue they should be," she wrote.

In his dissent, Lillehaug wrote that the majority's assertion that Axelberg had to lose her license was the result of the Legislature tying the judiciary's hands. "In my view, the majority has manufactured and applied its own binding," he wrote. "Now, because of the majority's unwillingness to read the law to avoid manifest injustice, the Legislature may wish to consider further measures to protect the next Jennifer Axelberg."

Looking to legislators

Liz Richards, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women, said the court's ruling will help spur broader conversation in the legal field to understand how fear and duress sometimes force tough choices on victims of domestic violence.

"The context of these relationships is very complex," she said. "When you have a divided court, it can mean it's open for greater thinking."

Attorney Ryan Pacyga, who represented Axelberg pro bono throughout her appeals process, called the court's split decision a consolation prize. He said that he disagrees with the outcome but that it's now up the Legislature to correct a dysfunctional implied-consent law to deal with unforeseen circumstances.

That includes extreme cases such as Axelberg's, he said. He doesn't believe allowing for circumstances like hers would increase the number of drunken drivers, he added.

"My beacon of hope is that the court placed it squarely on the Legislature's shoulders," he said. "If there are legislators with the guts to take up this issue, I want to talk to them."

David Chanen • 612-673-4465