Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


Legislative commission opts for unprecedented approach to defend Photo ID amendment

The Minnesota Legislature is hiring outside counsel to try to intervene formally in litigation to defend one of its key priorities.

Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem and Legislative Coordinating Commission Chairwoman Michelle Fischbach at Thursday's LCC meeting on whether to retain outside counsel to intervene in the Photo ID lawsuit.

For the first time in state history, the Minnesota Legislature will try to intervene formally in litigation to defend one of its key priorities — the Republican-backed Photo ID constitutional amendment headed for the November ballot.

Senate and House members, meeting as the Legislative Coordinating Commission, voted Thursday to spend $18,000 to hire outside counsel to join the lawsuit, brought by groups who oppose the amendment.

The GOP leaders said the Legislature, which passed the amendment along rough party lines in April, needs to be a part of the suit in order to have its governmental authority adequately represented.

 The two authors of the amendment in the House and Senate also joined the lawsuit separately last week and will be represented by a privately financed attorney.

The voice vote to hire the Winthrop & Weinstine law firm appeared to fall along party lines among the 12 committee members, following less than an hour of debate.

Zellers, Senjem defend approach

Afterward, I asked House Speaker Kurt Zellers and Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem why the House and Senate Republican caucuses didn’t hire their own attorney to join the lawsuit.

“The Legislature has spoken on this issue, albeit certainly not unanimously, but they have spoken,” Senjem said. “The Legislative Coordinating Commission is, I think, the most appropriate venue to have not only this discussion but to have the funds for the lawsuit coming from.”

The $18,000 will come out of the commission’s roughly $700,000 operating budget.

Article continues after advertisement

Zellers argued the commission was an appropriate way to take on the lawsuit because the fundamental issue at stake is fighting for the whole Legislature’s authority to craft and draft constitutional amendments.

The lawsuit — brought forward by the League of Women Voters and the ACLU of Minnesota, among others — asks the Supreme Court to block the amendment from appearing on the ballot because they say the wording of the question is misleading.

The amendment can be broken into three parts: a simple ballot question designed to briefly describe the legislative intent, more specific constitutional language absent from the ballot, and enacting language passed by the next Legislature.

The groups involved in the lawsuit allege that the ballot question doesn’t adequately inform voters that, if passed, the amendment would implement two-step provisional balloting and could end Election Day registration. Supreme Court arguments are slated to begin on July 17.

Former Gov. Arne Carlson blasts move

Former Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson, a Republican who frequently has strayed from party positions in recent years, questioned why the Republican-led intervention couldn’t be financed by the state party or one of the GOP caucuses.

“What in the world are they doing intervening in lawsuits?” he said in an interview Wednesday. “As a taxpayer, I’m very offended.”

Carlson, who served as governor from 1991 to 1999, wondered whether it was even legal for the LCC to pay for outside counsel.

“Where then do they have the authority to appropriate or spend that kind of money?” he said. “It should come from the coffers of the Republican Party.”

A staffer at the Legislative Reference Library, who worked with an LCC attorney, said the legality of the move is extremely complex. Senate Counsel Tom Bottern, however, said the commission had the ability to appropriate funds.

Still, House Minority Leader Paul Thissen criticized the “unprecedented” legal move.

Rep. Paul ThissenMinnPost photo by James NordHouse Minority Leader Paul Thissen was the most vocal opponent of spending public money on an attorney to intervene in the lawsuit.

“I’m going to be voting against [the resolution] because I don’t think we should be spending more taxpayers’ dollars on the Legislature to be talking about this kind of obsession with constitutional amendments,” he said.

Carlson also questioned whether Republicans chose LCC financing because the Senate Republican Caucus is in fiscal trouble and the state GOP is mired in debt.

“[The Republicans are] looking for money, and they think the taxpayer is the one who should pay the bill, and I think that’s an outrage,” Carlson said.

But Senjem denied the charge and reaffirmed his belief that the commission was the most logical course for coordinating both houses’ approach.

“That’s what the LCC is for,” Zellers said after the meeting ended. “Whether it’s Democrats or Republicans in the majority, the Legislature’s authority needs to be affirmed. Not just one caucus or the other, it has to be the Legislature’s authority.”

GOP wary of secretary of state’s efforts

Republicans also have other, more practical concerns.

GOP Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, the bill’s chief House author, said last week that she doesn’t believe that Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a DFLer who opposes the amendment, would vigorously defend the Photo ID measure in court.

Senjem echoed that view.

“The secretary of state has been fairly public about his opposition to this, so the amount of energy and vigor that he will put into it through the attorney general’s office, I suppose, is in question,” he said.

 The attorney general’s office, which is representing Ritchie as a part of the executive branch, declined to also represent the Legislature in the suit.