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Court focuses on Dayton's veto power, whether court case was necessary

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Sam Hanson, the attorney representing Gov. Dayton, delivers oral arguments.
Sam Hanson, the attorney representing Gov. Mark Dayton, delivers his oral arguments before the Minnesota Supreme Court at the Capitol in St. Paul, Minn., Monday, Aug. 28, 2017.
Leila Navidi | Star Tribune pool via AP

Members of the Minnesota Supreme Court posed tough questions Monday to lawyers on both sides of the dispute between DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and the Republican-controlled Legislature over Dayton's line-item vetoes.

  Dayton had appealed a lower court's decision that said his move to cut spending for the House and Senate was unconstitutional and declared his vetoes "null and void."  

The wide-ranging questions from the justices brought up everything from the Federalist Papers to state and federal court cases. They came down to whether Dayton had the power to cut spending for another branch of government and whether the Legislature had any recourse short of taking the matter to court.

  In response to a question from Chief Justice Lorie Gildea, Dayton's attorney Sam Hanson, himself a former member of the high court, told the justices that the state Constitution clearly gives the governor power to line-item veto any spending without exception.

  "The powers that the governor asserted here were powers that he's had for over 100 years in that office," Hanson said.

  Hanson called rhetoric from members of the Legislature that Dayton had tried to abolish the legislative branch "over the top." He said Dayton was merely using the least disruptive alternative available to him to compel legislative leaders to reopen negotiations over items in the budget he disagreed with.

  Members of the court, particularly Dayton appointees David Lillehaug and Natalie Hudson, pressed Doug Kelley, the attorney for the Legislature, on why legislative leaders adjourned their special session without waiting for Dayton to act on the bills they passed. The justices suggested that the legislators could have used their power to override the line-item vetoes had they stayed in session.  

In response to a question from the court, Kelley said there was a big difference between a normal veto and what Dayton did.  

"When you veto the bill, when you veto the whole bill, both sides lose what they had in the bill," Kelley said. "There are compromises. The governor had things he wanted, the Legislature had things it wanted."

  Kelley contended that a Ramsey County judge had acted properly in ruling that Dayton abused his veto power in this case.

The arguments lasted more than an hour. Justice David Stras, whom President Trump has nominated for a seat on the federal appeals court, did not take part. In addition to the uncharted constitutional territory, the session was also historic in that it was the first such proceeding live-streamed by the court in what it says will now be standard practice.

The justices gave no indication of when they would rule.

Dayton and several legislators attended the hearing. 

"The core question here, which the supreme court I hope will answer, is, is my veto constitutional? I believe it clearly is," Dayton said.

Top lawmakers were similarly confident about their opposing position. But Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, acknowledged that a ruling that overturns the district court would have consequences.

"If they do rule in the governor's favor, he suddenly has more power than he's ever had before," Gazelka said.