Update: Court rules courts will stay open in shutdown

Christopherson (Richard Sennott, pool photographer)

Minnesota’s courts will remain open if much of state government shuts down Friday, a retired judge ruled Tuesday.

 “The Minnesota judicial branch shall continue to perform the functions of that branch necessary to fulfill its obligations and to ensure citizens’ rights…” retired judge Bruce Christopherson wrote in an order a day after he heard arguments to keep the courts operating.

In making the order, Christopherson also said that Minnesota Management and Budget must keep enough people on duty to pay court workers and other expenses.

The ruling came before a broader one that will affect much of the rest of state government. It is expected Wednesday or Thursday and would determine whether other state services would continue in lieu of a budget.

Christopherson, a former Granite Falls judge, said that rights such as protection of life, liberty and property trump a state constitutional provision that says only the Legislature can appropriate state funds. Four Republican senators had argued that the courts have no authority to keep money flowing if there is no state budget.

“Complete absence of funding of any of the three branches of government would effect the withering of that branch, contrary to the clear intent of the Minnesota Constitution,” Christopherson wrote.

“I am delighted,” Gov. Mark Dayton said about the ruling, which matched what his attorney argued in court on Monday.

Christopherson’s ruling provides funding through July 30, but he reserved the right to change the time it remains in place and make other changes in his order.

He heard on Monday that 53,000 court hearings are scheduled for July.

Christopherson was appointed because the Ramsey County chief judge said it would be a conflict of interest for her to handle the case.

His ruling could be appealed to the state Appeals Court or Supreme Court, but Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, said GOP leaders have no such plans.

The case was brought by Attorney General Lori Swanson in an effort to keep the judiciary funded if the governor and legislators do not agree on a budget by Friday, when current appropriations end.

Dayton and legislative leaders continue to discuss budget issues behind closed doors, but are not saying how much progress is being made.

Dayton vetoed Republican-written budget bills, including one funding the courts, on May 24, the day after the regular legislative session ended. A special legislative session would be needed to pass more budget bills, but Dayton says he will not call one until he and Republican leaders have agreed on an entire budget.

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