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Minnesota’s courts would continue to operate even during government shutdown

Minnesota’s judicial system will continue functioning if a budget agreement between lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton can’t be reached by the end of Minnesota’s fiscal year on Thursday.

Retired Judge Bruce Christopherson initially heard arguments Monday to keep the judicial branch open and today released his conclusions: Minnesotans’ constitutional rights would be violated if the courts were closed during a shutdown.

“If the courts are not funded, the basic, essential constitutional rights of the public would be unprotected and fail,” he wrote. “The consequences would be irreparable and inestimable.”

That gives the judicial branch more security than currently afforded to either the executive and legislative bodies, which are still waiting for a ruling from Ramsey County Chief Judge Kathleen Gearin over which state services are considered essential in the event of a shutdown.

Dayton and GOP lawmakers have met periodically since the end of last week in attempts to reach an agreement that would prevent a government shutdown on Friday. Without Gearin’s ruling, it’s unclear which services will be affected and how many of the roughly 36,000 employees scheduled to be laid off will be handed pink slips.

Christopherson, who was appointed by the Minnesota Supreme Court, wrote that judiciary employees, public defenders and judges would all be kept on because the entire system is completely interdependent.

The courts, if a shutdown comes Friday, would continue at their current funding levels until July 30 or until lawmakers reach a budget deal. Christopherson also ruled that the courts have the authority to cut short or extend their funding if necessary.

The crux of the problem facing Christopherson was a constitutional issue. The state Constitution bars expending funds that haven’t been appropriated by the Legislature; however, Christopherson argued, Minnesotans’ constitutional rights to life, liberty and property would be harmed more by a shutdown of the judiciary than by a violation of the appropriations clause.

Attorney General Lori Swanson’s office, Dayton’s staff and the State Board of Public Defense all argued for keeping the courts open.

Christopherson rejected the efforts of a group of four GOP senators who first failed at petitioning Gearin to order the governor to call a special session before bringing their plea to the retired judge.

Lawmakers continued meeting Tuesday in efforts to reach an agreement.

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