Rhetoric up, cooperation down at Capitol

Political rhetoric escalated in the Minnesota Capitol today as Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed four Republican-written lawsuit reform bills.

Dayton complained that Republicans did not talk to him or consider a court report on the issue before passing the bills.

“It appears to be just another political ploy,” Dayton said.

On the other hand, House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, and Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, said that Dayton had since May to express concern about the bills. That is when the Senate overwhelmingly passed them; the House passed them earlier in this still-young legislative session and the Senate approved little changes days ago.

“They have set the tone,” Dayton said about Republican bills that he claims are not good for the average Minnesotan.

Zellers said the lawsuit reform bills came from businesses. “This is not a coalition of wrongdoers.”

Senjem encouraged state leaders to take a different tone.

“I just find this morning to be a little disappointing,” the leader said after learning about the vetoes and Dayton’s comments. “It is time for the governor to put the spears down.”

But Republicans took their shots at Dayton and his vetoes.

“The governor in vetoing them is no friend of Minnesota business,” said Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen.

The Legislature has met about three weeks (with a four-day break for precinct caucuses) out of what some legislative leaders predict to be a 10-week session. The state Constitution requires them to adjourn by May 21, but most leaders want to leave much earlier.

Minge leaves Appeals Court

Former U.S. Rep. David Minge is retiring from the state Appeals Court.

Gov. Mark Dayton announced the vacancy and asked the Judicial Selection Commission to begin the process of finding potential candidates to replace him.

Minge, 69, has served on the state’s second-highest court since then-Gov. Jesse Ventura appointed him in 2002. Before that, he served four terms in the U.S. House.

Mark Kennedy beat Minge when he ran for a fifth term.

Raised in Worthington, Minn., Minge also has been an attorney in private practice and taught law at the University of Wyoming.

Minge’s replacement must come from the 2nd Congressional District, across the southern Twin Cities and further south.

Judicial panel on road to new congressional maps

How Minnesotans use roads could help determine the shape of new congressional districts.

Most major rural Minnesota roads go east and west, one of several similarities that Republicans say should lead to three mostly rural congressional districts that stretch from Wisconsin to the Dakotas.

Democratic leaders, meanwhile, claim there are so many differences between eastern and western Minnesota that they should be in separate districts. They want to keep demographic differences among voters in a district at a minimum.

That is among issues five Minnesota judges are considering as they look at roads, city and county boundaries, demographics and other factors in facing a deadline to redraw Minnesota’s congressional maps.

The judges heard arguments about district lines Wednesday, preparing to release final maps on Feb. 21. New districts must be redrawn every 10 years to ensure that each of the state’s eight districts has the same population.

Judges are involved because the Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton have not agreed on redistricting plans, and there are no signs they will make a deal before Feb. 21.

A lawyer representing Democratic voters, separate from party leaders, was critical of the GOP east-west districts.

“It certainly is not necessary to achieve population equality,” Alan Weinblatt said.

He called the Republican proposal “radical surgery” when only relatively minor changes are needed in current district lines.

Former Chief Justice Eric Magnuson, representing Republicans, said there is no major north-south highway in western Minnesota, and it makes sense for districts to follow highways.

“That is not a common way for people to travel,” he said about traffic going north and south on roads such as U.S. 75 and 59.

The GOP proposal divides fewer cities and counties among districts and puts the northern third of the state, with U.S. 2 stretching from Duluth to Moorhead, in a new 8th Congressional District.

In southern Minnesota, Republicans propose a district about like the one that now goes from Wisconsin to South Dakota along Interstate 90, but they add western counties south of the Minnesota River.

In the central part of the state, a district would be north, northwest and west of the Twin Cities, in a large part near Interstate 94.

Magnuson said the northern district features sugar beets, although he said little about Iron Range differences with the beet-growing northwest. The central district, he said, is heavy on dairy farms, while the southern district features corn and soybeans.

“Everyone is proposing fairly significant changes … to accommodate the population,” Magnuson said.

Democratic leaders’ preferred plan, meanwhile, includes a northeastern district much in line today’s 8th Congressional District.

The western Minnesota district under the DFL plan stretches all the way from Canada to Iowa, although attorney Marc Elias told the judges that it just extends the current 7th district 40 miles to the south, so there is little new.

The Democratic submission reduces the southern district’s east-west size because Rochester and Mankato are growing.

The two parties’ plans, plus a third submitted by DFL-leaning voters, propose a similar 6th Congressional District north of the Twin Cities that is smaller than today, to compensate for the area’s growing population.

“The decisions made in the north drive the rest of the map,” Elias said, noting problems keeping similar voters together in a northern district.

Republicans keep most American Indian reservations north of the Twin Cities in one district, while Democrats split them among districts.

Northwestern Minnesota has more in common with the southwest than the northeast, said Elias, a Washington, D.C. attorney. That means, he added, the DFL north-south plan results in a district with more similarities among voters.

The parties deal differently with the current 2nd district, south of the Twin Cities.

Republicans mix more rural counties like Goodhue and Wabasha with mostly suburban ones such as Dakota. Democrats, on the other hand, only include rural Goodhue with suburban counties.

The DFL plan would put incumbent U.S. Reps. Michele Bachmann and Betty McCollum in the same district, but would not force races between any other incumbents. The Republican plan does not pit incumbents against each other.

Republicans, Democrats argue redistricting fundamentals

Republicans want new political boundaries drawn to avoid splitting cities and counties, but Democrats say that judges who have accepted the task of producing new congressional and legislative district maps should emphasize keeping people with similar interests together.

It is a wonky, technical debate, but one that could determine who represents Minnesotans for the next decade.

The two sides agreed on many things in a Wednesday court hearing, but not on the fundamental issue about criteria used to redraw the lines, as required after each decade’s census numbers are available.

“You are the guardians of the Constitution,” former Chief Justice Eric Magnuson told a five-judge panel that accepted the task of drawing new district maps. He now represents Republicans.

The basic disagreement between Magnuson and Marc Elias, a Democratic Washington, D.C., attorney, was whether the state Constitution requires the judges to do everything possible to avoid drawing district lines that split counties, cities and other political entities. That is what Magnuson argued.

Elias, on the other hand, said that while preserving existing political lines may be important, the judges also need to consider keeping communities of interests together. For instance, the Democratic argument would keep minorities in the same district, even if a minority community spanned more than one city.

“Make sure the people of Minnesota have their interests protected,” Elias told the judges.

Voters move and communities grow, not always respecting political lines, Elias said.

Magnuson emphasized to the judges that the public must feel confident their maps are the fairest possible, and sticking to existing political boundaries would do that.

While Elias and Magnuson did not discuss it in court or with reporters afterward, the issue is important because Democrats want to make sure minorities and others that traditionally support them are not so diluted that they lose voting power. If a voting bloc is divided, it often loses power to elect a candidate.

Republicans, on the other hand, see an advantage of keeping minorities in the minority of each district because they often get little support from that segment of voters.

The five judges are expected to release their redistricting criteria soon, giving the two major political parties a chance to tweak their proposed district maps.

New maps are needed so each district contains basically the same number of people, as required by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton have failed to agree on new maps, and few think they will. That impasse resulted in the courts setting up the judicial panel to begin working since new district lines must be in place by Feb. 21.

Shutdown judge receives state honor

The judge who presided over a state shutdown lawsuit received a “service to the community” award from fellow Minnesota judges.

The Minnesota District court Judges Association gave the award to Second Judicial District Chief Judge Kathleen Gearin. She also presided over a case involving then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s unilateral budget cuts and served on the 2008 state Canvassing Board that dealt with the U.S. Senate recount.

“For the last several years, she has been front and center on some of the most challenging legal and electoral issues of our lifetime,” said one of Gearin’s nominators.

“Her gifted abilities and energies were tested when she tackled this (shutdown) case,” said another nominator. “She presided with civility, but firmness; respect, but independence befitting the judicial branch; compassion, but grounded in the rule of law and moderation. She labored to serve the public, to be fair, and to do justice…, her professionalism and her handling of this case embody our ideal of justice we strive for as judges.” 

She also showed a sense of humor and often did something judges seldom do: She thought out loud as she heard the shutdown case, giving those in the courtroom a deep understanding of her decisions.

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.

State asks courts to allow some spending in shutdown

Minnesota’s attorney general today asked courts to allow some state operations to continue if there is a government shutdown on July 1.

Attorney General Lori Swanson filed paperwork in Ramsey County District Court seeking permission to fund programs that affect “the life, health, safety and liberty” of Minnesotans even if there is no state budget.

Swanson did not spell out what should remain open if a budget impasse continues, but gave some strong hints.

The state cares for nearly 1,300 mentally ill Minnesotans, Swanson said, and “without a state budget or court order providing for the continued care of patients, they would either have to be released or left unattended in state facilities.”

Also, she said, about 9,000 people in Minnesota prisons need continual guarding, food and other services. Another 20,000 offenders on supervised release in the community, including 1,200 high-risk criminals, need to be monitored by probation officers, the attorney general said.

The 616 sex offenders who have been committed to state hospitals are dangerous and likely to reoffend if not supervised, Swanson said. But they could be released from state care in a shutdown unless the court acts, she wrote.

More than 750 military veterans could lose care in the state’s five veterans’ home, Swanson warned.

The attorney general also warned that state troopers, criminal investigators and emergency management personnel may not be working.

More than 600,000 low-income Minnesotans, such as the elderly and disabled, receive state-funded medical care and could lose that without a state budget deal, Swanson wrote. That number includes Minnesotans in nursing homes.

While taxes are required to be paid even without a new tax law, the state may not be able to collect those taxes, Swanson said, “further jeopardizing the state’s fiscal situation.”

“The relief requested is limited and temporary in nature,” Swanson wrote. “The relief sought would only permit the continued operation of the core functions of the government entities” as required by state and federal constitutions and courts.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that “states cannot abridge or ignore the constructional rights of their citizens simply because funding has not been appropriated,” Swanson said in the court document.

A shutdown is being discussed because the Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton have not agreed on a budget for the two years beginning July 1. Only agriculture programs have been funded, and even they may be hampered because other parts of state government are involved the Agriculture Department’s funding.

There were no high-level budget talks on Friday, over the weekend or today. There was no word when Dayton and GOP leaders will meet again.

All Dayton administration agencies have prepared shutdown plans, although state officials refuse to release them to the public. Those plans are expected to form the basis for what Dayton and Swanson ask the courts to keep open.

In her document asking the courts to get involved, Swanson said that while on one hand the state Constitution requires the Legislature to appropriate money before it can be spent, on the other hand state constitutional officers are required to fulfill their duties, and money is needed to do that.

There was no immediate indication about when the courts may take up Swanson’s request.

Senate keeps court funding, but cuts public safety

Senators approved a spending bill Tuesday that keeps money flowing to the courts while making cuts that could slow some crime investigations.

The Republican-written measure would spend $1.8 billion in the next two years, $60 million less than current budget and $29 million below a plan from Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton. The bill passed 36-28 with Democrats lining up against it.

The courts maintain most funding under the bill offered by Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, who leads the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee. But Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said public safety cuts such as one taking $1 million from the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension could slow police work and a provision chopping the Human Rights Department budget in half would affect the state’s effort to stop discrimination.

Limmer’s bill cuts less than most budget bills now making their way through the Legislature.

The measure gives a 2.4 percent increase to state public defenders, who have sustained cuts in the recent past.

Funding for poor Minnesotans involved in civil court fights is cut 6.4 percent, $1.5 million.

Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said the cut was included because there is no constitutional requirement to provide legal help in civil cases, while there is in criminal cases.

The biggest cut, by percent, is the $3.3 million for the Human Rights Department, down from $6.7 million in the current budget.

“What a terrible message,” Latz said.

Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, said no other state agency is looking at a 50 percent budget cut.

Newman was critical of the department. Ninety percent of claims the department helps file are dismissed, he said.

“It is an advocacy group,” he said of the department.

Democrats complained that a Corrections Department cut means 31 probation officers would not be funded, and local governments may be forced to find their own money to do the work.

Reducing Bureau of Criminal Apprehension spending by $1 million could slow laboratory operations it conducts for police officers statewide, as well as forcing elimination of a program designed to protect children from online solicitation, Democrats said.

Democratic-Farmer-Laborites offered amendments to increase fees to maintain funding in several areas, but Republicans who control the Senate defeated the efforts.

The House plans to debate a similar bill in the next few days.

Many tickets now may be paid by phone

Tickets that do not require court appearances may be paid by telephone or the Web.

Minnesota court officials announced that automated phone and on line systems now accept credit card fine payments.

Payments can be made at (651) 281-3219 in the Twin Cities or (800) 657-3611 elsewhere, as well as www.mncourts.gov. Payment also still may be made at the courthouse where the ticket was issued or by mail.

“Centralizing and automating the processing of these payable citations will cut costs, improve service and increase revenue for state and local government,” said State Court Administrator Sue K. Dosal. “It’s just one of several ways we are using technology to increase our efficiency.”

Assortment of races await voters

The governor’s race grabs headlines, but Minnesota voters Tuesday will decide a range of races including other statewide political offices, Supreme Court justice positions and all eight U.S. House seats.

The normally placid state auditor’s race has plenty of spark this year as incumbent Rebecca Otto, a Democrat, tries to fight off Republican Pat Anderson, the woman she beat four years ago. Otto claims Anderson’s one term as auditor was punctuated with math mistakes, while Anderson says Otto works too closely with local governments she is supposed to audit.

The other two statewide political races have been more docile, although Republican challengers have tried to raise a ruckus. DFL Attorney General Lori Swanson is challenged by Republican Chris Barden while Democratic Secretary of State Mark Ritchie faces Rep. Dan Severson of the GOP.

A couple of other statewide races have gained little attention, but mark a departure from traditional campaigns. They are in the contest for state Supreme Court justice where challengers are tied to the Republican Party.

Tim Tingelstad of Bemidji challenges the best-known justice, former Vikings football star Alan Page. And Justice Helen Meyer faces Greg Wersal, who won U.S. Supreme Court ruling that opens the judiciary to campaigns more like those seen in political races.

Two congressional races have raised eyebrows.

Republican challenger Chip Cravaack in the 8th Congressional District, covering northeast and north-central Minnesota, is giving long-time U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, a Democrat, a run for his money. Oberstar usually wins with at least 60 percent of the vote, but political observers say this year’s election could be closer.

A Democrat in southern Minnesota, U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, also faces a tough challenger in state Rep. Randy Demmer, a Republican.

Every one of the 201 seats in the Minnesota Legislature is on the ballot this year.

While DFLers hold significant House and Senate majorities, Republicans hope a national anti-Democratic wave will aid them in getting control of at least one chamber. Even many Democrats admit it is likely that the GOP will make legislative gains this year.

Perhaps the biggest prize in winning the Legislature this year would be the task of drawing new political boundaries. Legislators need to take new census data and reconfigure legislative and congressional boundaries to ensure equal representation, and the majority party has control of that process, which could cement control of the party in power.

Past redistricting attempts failed, throwing the decision to the courts, but if one party maintains strong control of the Legislature it can have more say in district lines.

Judicial ceremony through political eyes

Thomas

Anyone watching Monday’s judicial swearing-in ceremony with political eyes may have had a different view than those who watched through judicial glasses.

Take Clarence Thomas, the U.S. Supreme court justice who came to deliver the oath to new Minnesota justice David Stras. Of all on stage, he seemed the most relaxed and even to enjoy the hour-and-a-half ceremony to its fullest.

When someone told a joke, Thomas issued the most gregarious laugh of anyone in a crowd of 600.

But when he took to the microphone, Thomas said a few quiet words about Stras and the judiciary. Quiet, indeed. It was tough for many to hear the man, who as high court justice is one of the most powerful people in the country.

The day’s biggest irony was that Ramsey County District Judge Kathleen Gearin hosted the event.

Thomas and David Wippman of the University of Minnesota Law School sat between Gearin and Gov. Tim Pawlenty in the stage’s front row. Pawlenty, who appointed Stras and Chief Justice Lorie Gildea, has been very critical of a ruling Gearin made earlier this year in which she said the governor’s unilateral cutting of the state budget was illegal.

Gildea opposed Gearin’s ruling, and wrote a dissenting opinion when the majority of the high court sided with Gearin. And Stras wrote a pro-Pawlenty legal brief in the case.

A chipper Gearin introduced Pawlenty, who appeared divert his eyes from hers when he walked to the podium.

Later, Gearin followed up on a fishing joke, turning to Pawlenty and saying that she understands that his wife, Mary, was the real angler of the family. The governor presented a forced smile.

In fact, Pawlenty wore an untypically somber face the entire ceremony, a day when he should have been happy to celebrate delivering a solid conservative majority on the high court.
 

Pawlenty

Gildea rides to top court job

Gildea and her father, Roger Skjerven

Lorie Skjerven Gildea learned at an early age how to tackle difficult situations.

Gildea, who on Monday was sworn in as the Minnesota Supreme Court’s 22nd chief justice, was a young 4-H member when she took her Shetland pony, Carmel, to the Red Lake County fair. Older 4-H members were sure she would "freeze up" and fail in the horse competition, former Minnesota Chief Justice Russell Anderson said.

It was Carmel that froze when it came time to go in front of the fair crowd, all 25 of them, but the one-day chief justice persisted and persuaded the pony to enter the ring, eventually taking away championship honors.

Anderson, who as judge served the northwestern Minnesota area where Gildea was raised, said long hours the girl spent training Carmel and her will to win is what Minnesotans can expect from the new head of the state’s court system: "She is a testament to hard work and determination."

She also shows a "compassion for others," said Anderson, whom Gildea called her judicial mentor.

Anderson told about Gildea during an hour-and-a-half ceremony in St. Paul’s historic Landmark Center. Gildea took the oath to be chief justice from Justice Alan Page in front of about 600 people, mostly judges, lawyers and state officials.

Also, David Stras of suburban Wayzata took the oath to become a high court justice replacing Gildea.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who gave Stras the oath, took the spotlight in a post-ceremony reception as audience members crowed around him for conversation and photos.

Stras was law clerk for Thomas years ago and the U.S. justice rearranged his schedule to take part in Monday’s event.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty appointed Stras, 35, and Gildea, 48, two months ago. Both promise to seek re-election when their terms expire.

Pawlenty said Gildea will be "a justice of historic stature and ability."

Gildea, a Plummer native, credited her success on her small-town upbringing.

"When you grow up in a very small town, you learn that everyone works together or nothing gets done," she said.

Like Anderson four years ago, Gildea was critical of those who want judges to make decisions based on partisan politics.

"We don’t want rulings based on campaign contributions," she said.

She also said the judiciary faces a financial challenge.

"In the middle of challenge lies opportunity," she said, giving no details about how she would deal with judicial issues as the person in charge of Minnesota courts, but said the system "must be adequately funded" to preserve democracy and protect public safety.

Thomas, in saying a few words about Stras before swearing him in, called the state high court’s newest justice very suited for the job.

Stras, introduced as an unusually conservative law professor at the University of Minnesota, called his new job "a limited one."

Some Democrats have criticized Pawlenty for appointing Gildea and Stras.

Gildea wrote a dissenting opinion earlier this year when the Supreme Court decided

Pawlenty illegally cut spending last summer. Stras wrote a legal brief on Pawlenty’s behalf in the case.

Gildea is a University of Minnesota Morris graduate (current Morris student Gretchen Retka song the national anthem to open Monday’s ceremony). She has served on the state’s high court since January 2006 and replaces Eric Magnuson, who announced in March that he would leave the court for personal reasons.

She has been a University of Minnesota lawyer, assistant Hennepin County attorney, lawyer in Washington and an editor of the American Criminal Law Review.

Stras has been on the University of Minnesota Law School faculty since 2004 and was a lawyer at Faegre & Benson in the Twin Cities.
 

Anderson, Gildea

Gildea, father, Page

Gildea, Goldy

Stras, family, Thomas

Thomas