State officials and special interest groups appeared in court Thursday to describe which services should be deemed essential and what kind of court intervention is appropriate if the government shuts down on July 1.
Ramsey County Chief Judge Kathleen Gearin ended the hearing by saying she would take the case under advisement, but said she wouldn't rule this week.
Gearin urged the attorneys for DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican legislative leaders not to give up on a budget deal that would avoid the looming state government shutdown. She said an agreement from them before the current two-year budget ends on the last day of June would be the far better resolution.
Gearin said this scenario is far more extensive and serious that the partial government shutdown that lasted nine days in 2005.
"Very little has been funded by bills passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor; I think only the agriculture department," Gearin said. "There has never been such an extensive impasse regarding appropriations that I'm aware at this stage in our history."
Gearin referred to the budget impasse as a constitutional crisis, but faced with several issued related to separation of powers said she had concerns about the case and pledged to "tread lightly."
"It is the crisis of the day. But for one branch, whether it be the executive, whether it be the legislative or the judicial, to concentrate too much power in that branch does not honor our constitution," she said.
Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson, who filed the shutdown lawsuit, urged Gearin to issue an order that would keep state funding flowing for a long list of essential services during a shutdown.
During her presentation, Swanson cited constitutional requirements for government to protect health and safety. She specifically highlighted state services for the disabled, mentally ill, veterans and the state patrol. Swanson said a court order is a fiscal necessity.
"We're eight days away from the end of this biennium. Absent resolution of the budget impasse in the next eight days, state government will shut down," Swanson said. "A government shutdown without a court order will violate the constitutional protections guaranteed to Minnesota citizens."
But Gov. Dayton has a different view of the looming shutdown, as well as his executive branch options. Dayton's legal counsel, David Lillehaug, told the court that the governor is prepared to take action on his own if necessary to keep essential services running.
"He will act not based on his priorities, but on what he understands to be critical services that are necessary to protect the life and safety of the people of Minnesota," Lillehaug said. "So he will execute his constitutional responsibilities, and as of now, he's not asking a court for approval of that."
Gearin said repeatedly during the hearing that she was uncomfortable wading into a dispute between Gov. Dayton and the Legislature and urged the two sides to get a deal done.
"I wouldn't want to be in the Legislature. I wouldn't want to be governor. They've got a tough task. We have hard economic times. We have all kinds of social issues that are extremely complex and becoming more complex," Gearin said. "I want to say this respectfully, but it feels sometimes like almost a game of chicken."
Earlier in the day, Judge Gearin rejected Dayton's request for court-order mediation in the state budget dispute. She said it would be improper for one branch of government to order another branch into mandatory mediation.
Gearin also rejected a petition from four Republican state senators to intervene in the case. They wanted to argue that the court has no authority to spend taxpayer money on essential services, because that is a responsibility the constitution grants only to the Legislature and governor. Gearin said the Republican Senate leadership is already represented in the case, and it makes no sense to allow smaller groups of legislators to intervene.
But many other groups have asked to be allowed to be parties to the case, including ones that represent contractors, domestic abuse victims, hospitals and cities. Many of them argue that Minnesotans they represent will be hurt if state funding is cut off by a shutdown.
Gearin said she will consider their requests, but she warned that whatever she rules there will be still be harm from a shutdown.
"The courts cannot make that better. It is not our responsibility," Gearin said. "The courts do not have the particular institutional competency to make the decisions that the Legislature makes and that the executive branch have the responsibility to make. We do our best."