MN Supreme Court hears state auditor’s appeal

State Auditor Rebecca Otto talked about her legal fight outside the Minnesota Supreme Court chamber at the state Capitol. Tim Pugmire|MPR News

DFL State Auditor Rebecca Otto on Tuesday took her legal challenge of a 2015 law allowing county government officials to bypass her office and hire private accountants to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

In her appeal, Otto contends the law is unconstitutional and undermines the core function of her office. A district court judge in Ramsey County and the Minnesota Court of Appeals previously upheld the law.

Otto’s attorney, Joe Dixon, said giving counties the option of going elsewhere for annual financial reviews leaves the state auditor’s office “an empty shell.” Dixon argued the statute violates the constitution’s separation of powers clause, and he urged supreme court justices to declare it null and void.

“This legislation brought about a structural change to one of our constitution’s checks and balances and usurped the executive authority without a constitutional amendment,” Dixon said.

Dixon also argued that the measure was wrongly included in a wide-ranging finance bill for state government.

Scott Anderson, an attorney representing two of the three counties that Otto sued, said the state auditor can still generate revenue by reviewing the finances of other local government entities.

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“This state auditor has chosen to prioritize her office to doing audits, physical examinations, of 87 Minnesota counties,” Anderson said. “But she has the ability to do audits of nearly 3,000 political subdivisions.”

Chief Justice Lorie Gildea said an opinion would come in “due course.”

Otto is not seeking another term as state auditor next year. She is a DFL candidate for governor.

Republican lawmakers have criticized Otto’s use of taxpayer money to fight the law change that they pushed for. A tally last year showed the legal bills had topped $250,000.

Following the court hearing, Otto said an additional $50,000 would be due to lawyers only if the appeal is successful. She also defended the hiring of an outside law firm.

“Generally, you’d be spending millions. We got a discount on behalf of the taxpayers, because the attorney general is not willing to represent this office,” Otto said. “Shame on the Legislature if they criticize. I had no other way of getting this done.”