Courts, Local Governments Seek Shutdown Funding

Knaak and three senators (Richard Sennott, pool photographer)

A retired judge is considering whether the courts should stay open during a government shutdown that could begin Friday.

It was one of several Monday developments as legislative leaders and the governor try to negotiate a budget.

Also Monday, cities prepared to go to court to keep their state aid flowing and Republican legislative leaders urged that the Stillwater Lift Bridge over the St. Croix River remain open.

The shutdown talk is because the current budget ends Thursday night and the state Constitution does not allow spending beyond then without a budget.

Former Granite Falls judge Bruce Christopherson heard an assistant attorney general argue that the state Constitution grants judicial rights to Minnesotans, so the courts should not be closed even if there is no budget.

Christopherson did not say when he would rule on the case.

Assistant Attorney General Nate Brennaman told Christopherson that more than 53,000 cases scheduled for July would be threatened if the courts did not maintain their funding.

Brennaman also said that law enforcement officers would be forced into a “catch and release” position with criminals because if they arrest someone with the courts closed, there would be no one to order them to be kept in jail.

“On July 1, without funding, without an agreement and without an order from this court, the judicial branch will be shut down,” Brennaman said.

That cannot happen, he said, because it would harm public safety. For instance, he said, hundreds of Minnesotans could seek protective orders in domestic abuse cases.

“One branch of government cannot infringe on a core function of another,” Brennaman said.

David Lillehaug, representing Gov. Mark Dayton, argued that no court order was needed. He said every state department has a right to decide on its own to decide what should continue to be funded.

Christopher Madel, representing the state’s public defenders, said the U.S. Constitution takes control in a shutdown and requires that public defenders remain on the state payroll. The Constitution “mandates that each one of us has a right to counsel,” he said.

Christopherson ruled against four state senators getting involved in the case, but still allowed their attorney, Fritz Knaak, to speak during the hearing. They claimed the Constitution requires the Legislature to make spending decisions, so a judge should not be allowed to keep court spending alive during a shutdown.

Also Monday, the League of Minnesota Cities reported that it was ready to go to court to seek continued Local Government Aid and other payments to its members during a shutdown.

The state Revenue Department says it will not issue planned aid checks to counties and cities in a shutdown. Many cities rely on the state aid, and some mayors have said public safety will lose funding if the July check does not come.

Top Republican lawmakers went to Stillwater Monday to urge Dayton to sign a transportation funding bill that would keep road construction going, as well as the Stillwater Lift Bridge operating.

After the GOP announced interest in the bridge, the Minnesota Department of Transportation announced it also would like the bridge to work in a shutdown. It partially is a public safety issue because a third of the Stillwater ambulance service’s patients are from western Wisconsin and other bridges are too far away to be useful.

Earlier, MnDOT had said that during the shutdown the bridge likely would be left in the raised position because the federal government would demand that water traffic continue. A MnDOT employee is needed to be at the bridge to raise and lower it.