The big shutdown ruling from Ramsey District Court Chief Judge Kathleen Gearin is in. The full order is here.
Gearn has ruled that many, but far from all, state government functions can continue to function during July even if the budget impasse is not resolved.
Gearin accepted the main argument made by Attorney General Lori Swanson that – as happened in 2005 – the court has the authority to keep “critical core functions” of the state open. And she rejected Gov. Dayton’s request that the court issue no orders and allow him to operate portions of the state government under what he claimed were “inherent” emergency powers of the governor.
But as far as what will stay open and what will close, Gearin adopted with a few changes the list of critical services that Dayton had submitted.
She appointed former Supreme Court Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz as “special master” to oversee the detailed spending decisions that will arise as this order is put into practice. But it appears that Blatz have fewer decisions to make than the special master did in 2005, because Gearin has gone further in defining what should and what should not be considered core functions.
It will take a while to sort out precisely what is open and closed. Gearin sought a middle ground between those urging a strict construction of the constitutional “no-spending-without-appropriations” language, and the soft shutdowns of the past in which only state parks, highway rest stops and drivers’ license exams seemed to be the only things that were shut down.
Although authorizing a lot of spending without appropriations might be deemed a usurpation of the Legislature’s constitutional power over the purse, Gearin noted that neither the state House nor the Senate had made the argument that she lacked authority to keep the core functions of the state open.
Assuming the Legislature and the governor do not work out a last-minute deal, Gearin’s order will take effect July 1 (that’s Friday) and remain in effect until July 31, unless extended by the court.
If the shutdown runs on for even a week, I expect there will be further court filings challenging portions of Gearin’s approach.
Here are some concrete examples from the ruling:
Gearin agrees with Gov. Mark Dayton that these core functions must continue:
- “Basic custodial care” for prison inmates, residents of state-operated regional treatment centers, nursing homes, veterans homes and residential academies;
- Maintenance of public safety and immediate public health concerns;
- Payment of benefits and medical services to individuals;
- Essential elements of the financial system of the government;
- Maintenance of computer systems, internet security.
Gearin also ruled that the “supremacy clause” of the federal constitution means that the state must keep paying its share of several big state-federal matching fund programs, such as food stamps, Medicaid and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). Basically, Gearin ruled, by originally agreeing to participate in those programs, Minnesota incurred an obligation to fulfill the terms of its participation.
The idea that the state prisons or state mental hospitals would close always seemed unthinkable, and now it’s official. The maintenance of benefit payments, which I presume includes, for example, unemployment checks and various forms of assistance to the poor, and especially health benefits, is a big finding and will limit the immediate impact of the shutdown on the sick, elderly and most economically vulnerable.
Don’t let a bridge fall down, but don’t build a new one
Gearin specified that road construction projects, including those for which contracts have been let, cannot continue unless the money to pay for the projects has been appropriated. I’m not clear at the moment on how big an impact that will have on construction. But many of them will shut down, even if only because state employees thart are necessary to keep them going will be laid off.
Responding to an argument by the Minnesota Association of General Contractors to the effect that all construction contracts must continue “due to perilous economic condition of the State’s construction industry,” Gearin wrote that if the industry loses money, if the state ends up paying more to stop and then restart construction projects, if construction workers get laid off and the temporary shutdown of projects inconveniences Minnesotans in the affected areas, those are not good enough reasons to spend unappropriated funds. If those bad things happen, it will be because the Legislature and governor couldn’t agree on a budget.
Even more specifically, responding to an argument that the replacement of the Lafayette Bridge in St. Paul must continue because the current bridge is unsafe, Gearin wrote:
“The court agrees that any part of a contract which keeps the bridge from collapsing does constitute a critical function that needs to be funded. [The court] does not agree that replacement of the bridge constitutes a critical core function necessary to protect the life, health and safety of its citizens.”
Update 2: Legal analysis
(Sorry if this is disjointed. I’m trying to get the elements of the ruling up as fast as I can digest them.)
Article XI, Sec. 1 of the Minnesota Constitution says: “No money shall be paid out of the treasury of this state except in pursuance of an appropriation by law.” Gearin quotes this repeatedly and says that she is trying hard to respect that provision. But “the Minnesota Constitution must be read as a whole and each provision interpreted in the context of the entire document and the provisions of the U.S. Constitution.”
The reference to the U.S. Constitution means that state functions that are necessary to protect the federal constitutional rights of Minnesotans must be preserved. An example (this comes from me, not from Gearin) would be the federal guarantee that prison inmates not be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. If the state stopped feeding the prison inmates because it had no appropriated funds with which to do so, it would violate that federal constitutional provision.
Gearin also uses the “supremacy clause” of the federal Constitution to justify continuing state-spending on state-federal programs, as I mentioned above.
But the really big rationale for keeping many state functions going is the “Minnesota Constitution must be read as a whole.” Since the Constitution sets up the executive branch, so the executive branch must be allowed to at least perform its critical core functions.
Gearin, as I mentioned above, has mostly accepted the governor’s definition of critical core functions. She says explicitly that her list is not as expansive as the definition originally suggested by Attorney General Swanson. Swanson never actually submitted a concrete list of core functions, but proposed, at least originally, that each executive branch agency decide for itself what it’s core functions are.
In her order, Gearin reqpeatedly states, as she did in court last week, that the court’s power is not sufficient to keep all kinds of bad things from happening to Minnesotans as a result of a shutdown and that it is the job of the Legislature and the governor to create a budget based on what the should do to help the economy or to help needy people. Here’s a sample, in which she refers to various letters and briefs she has received from entities arguing that the programs on which they depend will be harmed in the shutdown:
“The briefs and letters submitted represent many programs, agencies, and contracted private businesses that will be significantly and adversely impacted by the failure of the executive and legislative branches to successfully enact laws appropriating funds. It has been argued compellingly that many of these programs and entities are beneficial to the people of the State, provide services that may aid citizens in working their way out of poverty, may provide jobs for private industry, may improve the state infrastructure, may result in benefits that help working class people obtain and maintain employment, and provide a myriad of other benefits to the State. In light of Article XI, the Court believes that the negative impact of a government shutdown on these programs does not justify a court in over-extending its authority. In light of Article XI of the Minnesota Constitution, the Court must construe any authority it has to order government spending to maintain critical core functions in a very narrow sense. Discretionary appropriations are the province of the Legislature, not the courts.”