May a Minnesota judge order the spending of tax dollars to fund essential state functions if the state Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton do not reach a budget agreement by July 1? This is a legal question that will be asked in the coming days as it is anticipated that Attorney General Lori Swanson will approach a Ramsey County District Court judge with a court order for just this purpose. Yet some contend the court lacks this authority and it cannot do this. They are wrong.
The core of their argument rests on three claims. First they point to Article XI, section one of the Minnesota Constitution, which states: “No money shall be paid out of the treasury of this state except in pursuance of an appropriation by law.” Second, they argue that the failure to reach a budget deal is a nonjusticiable “political question” that should be resolved by the political process. Third, they contend separation of powers precludes the courts from addressing budgetary matters. These arguments all rest upon an incorrect understanding of the Minnesota courts and the state constitution.
The central error here is drawing a parallel between the Minnesota and the federal courts. The argument is that the U.S. Constitution and its separation of powers preclude federal courts from intervening in political questions and from ordering spending. Besides this claim being wrong on the national level, there is a major difference between the federal and state courts. Whatever limits there are on federal courts, they do not necessarily apply to the state judiciary. State courts, including those in Minnesota, have unique powers compared to those found at the federal level. They are governed by state constitutions that allocate powers to the three branches of government that often differ from those found at the national level.
Across the country state courts have been given powers under their constitutions to issue advisory opinions, to order spending to achieve adequate school funding, serve on redistricting commissions, and to enforce unique rights not found at the federal level. The same is true in Minnesota. There is case law supporting Minnesota courts ordering funding to ensure that the state judiciary can operate. What if the Legislature and the governor disliked a Minnesota Supreme Court decision and decided to retaliate by not funding the judiciary? Such a move would violate the state constitutional separation of powers clause (Article III) and Article VI, which invests judicial power in the Minnesota Courts. At the very least, separation of powers demands funding for the courts, regarding of whether it was appropriated according to whatever Article XI states.
Reading in light of other clauses
A central canon of statutory and constitutional interpretation is to read words to avoid absurd results or to render some language superfluous. A reading of Article XI that states money can only be appropriated if approved by the Legislature would produce odd results that render Article VI and Article III meaningless. Article XI must be read in light of other constitutional clauses.
Moreover, a so-called strict constructionist reading of Article XI and separation of powers must be understood within the context of the Minnesota and not just the U.S. Constitution. Article III of the Minnesota Constitution has a different history and meaning from federal separation of powers, thereby again suggesting that Article XI appropriation authority must be read differently from what is found at the federal level.
Because Minnesota courts follow different rules from the federal courts, claims of justiciability and separation of powers that appeal to federal analogies are inapt. What might be considered a political question or otherwise textually committed to Congress or the president under the U.S. Constitution might not be true in Minnesota.
An additional duty
But in addition to the Minnesota courts having different powers from those found at the federal level, they also have an additional duty beyond interpreting state constitutional provisions and the law. They are expected to enforce the U.S. Constitution and federal law. When state and federal constitutions and law conflict, the federal wins. Thus, notwithstanding any state constitutional provision, a state court might be required to order the funding of any federally mandated program, even if the no budget deal was reached. Thus, whatever Article XI of the Minnesota Constitution might mandate is overridden by federal law.
In sum, those who argue that the Minnesota courts cannot order funding for essential governmental functions are asserting a wooden and formal reading of the law. The uniqueness of state court authority, constitutional provisions, and the need to enforce federal law give Minnesota courts the power to act. This was true in 2001 and 2005 when state courts declared they had the authority to act, and the same should be true in 2011 if called upon to so rule.
David Schultz is a professor at Hamline University School of Business, where he teaches classes on privatization and public, private and nonprofit partnerships. He is the editor of the Journal of Public Affairs Education (JPAE), and he blogs at Schultz’s Take.