Gay marriage ban kept from vote as heat stays on Johnson

Supreme Court Chief Justice Russell Anderson
Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Russell Anderson, shown in December 2005 when he was named to the post by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

In a conference call with reporters, Chief Justice Russell Anderson said he was "incredulous" when he heard about Johnson's statements that justices had made assurances to him. Anderson says he asked each member of the Minnesota Supreme Court, including former chief justice Kathleen Blatz, to see if anyone ever talked about Minnesota's Defense of Marriage Act. The law defines marriage as between a man and a woman. Anderson says all justices said "no." And he made it clear it's not appropriate for an elected official even to ask a judge about an issue.

"I have been a trial judge and appellate court judge for 23 years and I have never been approached by a legislator or a county commissioner or a township officer or a mayor asking me for a commitment or even a conversation about a matter that is before the court or might become before the court. We just don't do that in Minnesota," Anderson said.

Sen. Dean Johnson
Sen. Dean Johnson appeared Monday at the Capitol. His caucus held a meeting behind closed doors without him, and then issued several lawmakers held a news conference offering their support.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Anderson's comments come just three days after Johnson's apology. The Senate Majority Leader told a group of pastors in January that he had received assurances from several Supreme Court justices that the courts would not overturn the Defense of Marriage Act.

Several groups have been lobbying for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage because they're concerned that the courts will overturn the law. On Friday Johnson said he embellished his description of a brief conversation with one justice. He didn't name the justice but it was clear from his comments that it was Chief Justice Blatz.

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Johnson was uncharacteristically succinct with reporters when asked about Anderson's comments.

"I issued a statement on Friday. I stand by my statement," he said. "I apologized and now we're going to move on to other issues like the Maple Grove Hospital today. That's my statement."

While Johnson was trying to put the controversy behind him, supporters of the proposed amendment again failed in their attempts to to force a full Senate vote on the proposal. Johnson and nearly every other Democrat voted against the measure because they wanted the committee process to take its course.

But Republican Sen. Tom Neuville of Northfield says the bill should be taken out of committee so the public knows where every senator stands on it.

"I know that's it's going to be dealt with in committee. It's going to be killed in committee. It's time for the body to vote in favor of this because it's the only way that everybody will weigh in on the issue," Neuville said.

Supporters of the ban on gay marriage have been focusing all of their efforts on the Senate since the measure has already passed the Republican-controlled House. If the Senate approves, a question would be put on the November ballot asking voters if marriage should be defined as between one man and one woman. If a majority of voters says yes, the constitution would ban same sex marriages and civil unions.

Protesters at the Capitol
Supporters of a marriage amendment protest outside the Senate chambers on Monday March 20, 2006.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

During the Senate debate, several Republicans also took aim at Dean Johnson's recent troubles by using terms like "truth" and "embellishment" in their speeches.

Johnson's recent troubles are likely to continue. Ron Carey, the chair of the Republican Party of Minnesota, said he believes Johnson is lying about his discussion with the justices. He also called for an ethics investigation.

Senate Minority Leader Dick Day stopped short of calling for an investigation, but says his caucus is considering it.

"If we feel that some very serious things have happened, which I kind of do, but I'm not an attorney so I don't know how well all of that would happen, then very well in the next week or so we could pursue something," Day said.

While Day and the Republican Party continue their criticism of Johnson, his Senate DFL colleagues continue to support him. DFL Sen. Keith Langseth of Glyndon says the caucus took a unanimous vote in support of their leader.

Langseth says he'll vote against the marriage amendment because he believes politics are behind it. Langseth says Republicans across the country are pushing similar measures to boost their support in the November election.

"I think it's because the United States Senate is up and the governorship and all of the state offices and all of the state lawmakers that they decided that this is a battleground state. That's just fine because we'll do battle," Langseth said.

DFL Chair David Ruth, meanwhile, issued a statement saying, "the Republican Party's actions are morally and politically reprehensible. When they can't win on the real issues of the day, they will descend into the muck. Well, they can wallow there alone."

The issue is not likely to fade this week. Supporters and opponents of the measure will be holding separate rallies this week.