In a divided decision, the Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday morning ruled against Gov. Tim Pawlenty in the unallotment case that challenged whether Pawlenty's emergency budget cuts from last year were permissible.

Chief Justice Eric Magnuson -- a Pawlenty appointee who is stepping down from the court soon -- wrote the decision, which found: "Use of the unallotment power to address the unresolved deficit exceeded the authority granted to the executive branch."

The ruling, seven weeks after the oral arguments, ends the most high-profile and bruising budget battle between Pawlenty and the DFL-controlled Legislature.

It's not immediately clear whether the ruling affects all of the $2.7 billion in cuts Pawlenty imposed last summer, or if it is narrowly focused on the tiny nutrition program for the poor that served as the genesis for the case.

The ruling also could turn the Legislature's budget headache into a full-blown migraine

Lawmakers already face an estimated $536 million deficit through the end of next summer. They now must determine how much more the deficit will grow as a result of the court's decision and how much deeper they are willing to cut.

Pawlenty used his solo budget-cutting authority last summer to unilaterally cut or shift $2.7 billion from the state budget, including the nutrition program. He made the cuts without legislative approval, at the beginning of the two-year budget cycle -- essentially cutting the Legislature out of the budget process.

Galen Robinson, an attorney for Mid-Minnesota Legal Assistance, who represented people on the nutrition program, argued that Pawlenty broke the law when he signed a bunch of spending bills and then vetoed the tax bill that would have paid for it. The governor created the financial crisis, Robinson said, and then used the crisis to justify the cuts, known as unallotment.

Pawlenty's use of unallotment became a signature political move that garnered widespread praise from conservatives nationally, who hailed him for out-maneuvering Democrats determined to raise taxes. Before it ended, the DFL-controlled House, conservative constitutional scholars and various city officials filed briefs in the case.

Ramsey County District Judge Kathleen Gearin ruled late last year that unallotment is constitutional but that Pawlenty misused it by making unilateral cuts after the Legislature adjourned.

The unallotment power "is not meant to be used as a weapon by the executive branch to break a stalemate in budget negotiations with the Legislature or to rewrite the appropriations bill," she wrote.

Pawlenty appealed, saying the judge wrongly inserted herself into a political dispute. He has said he used the power properly as the state entered its worst budget hardship since World War II.

The state Supreme Court agreed to expedite the case.

The lower court ruling included a temporary restraining order that required the state to turn back on the $5.5 million for the special-diet program. Those on the program are among the poorest in the state and have medically-necessary diets to maintain their health.

When Pawlenty cut the money, he drew fire when he said some of these people could turn to area food shelves.

Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288