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First shutdown hearing packs courtroom with people — and tension

When lawyers, lawmakers and citizens crowded into a packed Ramsey County courtroom Thursday morning, chaos showed up at the door, too.

It was the first day of the contentious court process that will determine what Minnesota’s potential government shutdown would look like.

State patrol officers repeatedly asked onlookers to step out of the at-capacity chamber, and the crowd spilled out into the courthouse’s Art Deco-themed hallway. The closely packed bodies vying for a spot at the door made the air muggy and dense.

Even Sen. Warren Limmer, part of a group of four senators who filed a petition with the court, was forced to stand in the doorway. Members of the media who arrived 30 minutes early were turned away as well.

Ramsey District Court Chief Judge Kathleen Gearin, who took the bench shortly after 10 a.m., seemed a bit flustered, telling onlookers later that she hadn’t been able to review “the tsunami of legal documents” and letters that have poured in this week about a potential government shutdown.

In the few hours that the court’s morning session lasted, Gearin received seven more petitions from various interest groups.

“To the best of my ability, I’ll read them and consider them,” she said, adding jokingly, “I’m not asking for more.”

Judge Kathleen Gearin
Judge Kathleen Gearin

Gearin repeatedly noted the seriousness of a potential shutdown and her reticence to impinge on her fellow branches of government by determining what essential state services are.

“This is not the budget crisis of 2001 and 2005,” Gearin said. “This is a far more significant crisis.”

“There will be private businesses that will not survive,” she said. “There will be families who will not be able to pay their mortgages.”

Although some onlookers departed and a switch to a larger courtroom in the afternoon calmed the hearing, the political divide in the executive branch kept tensions high throughout the day.

David Lillehaug, Gov. Mark Dayton’s special counsel for the shutdown, clashed with Attorney General Lori Swanson about the proper way to administer core state services if a breakdown in state government occurs.

Swanson’s petition to the court, which Gearin took under advisement, requests the courts to determine essential services, as they did in the 2005 shutdown. Lillehaug argued on behalf of Dayton that the governor has broad unilateral powers to continue spending — as is the case in some states — on essential government services outlined in his petition to the court.

Attorneys for both the state House and Senate also were on hand to represent both chambers, mainly focusing on Dayton’s request for mediation and to ensure that both bodies will have funding to continue if a shutdown occurs.

A stream of attorneys representing a variety of nonprofits and state organizations affirmed their support for Swanson’s broader petition.

Gearin said she likely won’t come to a decision on the issue until next week.

She did, however, reject Gov. Mark Dayton’s request to appoint a mediator to help negotiate a budget deal. She also ruled that the four individual senators already had representation as part of the Senate legal team.

But Gearin seemed troubled by allowing the courts to make a broad determination of what state spending should be.

“The courts can’t become the Legislature; we can’t become the executive branch. I am not happy about this,” she said, hitting her fist on her podium with each sentence.

Wrapping up the first hearing, she likened budget negotiations at the state Capitol to “almost a game of chicken.”

“Thank you. It’s under consideration,” Gearin said of the day’s debate over shutdown mechanics. Then she left the room.

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