Wednesday, January 3, 2018

January 3, 2018–A Day of Constitutional Infamy in Minnesota Politics

January 3, 2018 might turn out to be one of the most important days in recent Minnesota history, both in terms of politics and constitutional law.  For it is on that date that Tina Smith takes over for Al Franken as US Senator, potentially triggering a major constitutional battle, and Rebecca Otto has oral arguments before the Minnesota Supreme Court in a case that will decide the power of the State Auditor.  These two events are part of a broader political battle in Minnesota politics that now engulfs the state constitution.
Minnesota is no longer your grandfather’s state where the Democratic Farmer Labor Party ruled.  While Minnesota remains the most loyal of Democratic states in terms of presidential politics by not having gone for a Republican since 1972 with Richard Nixon, it is otherwise a state that is partisanly divided.  Republicans control the legislature; the congressional delegation is split by parties, and Donald Trump nearly beat Hillary Clinton in 2016, coming within 50,000 votes of flipping the state.  Clinton won only nine counties in 2016, Dayton as governor won only 37 of the 87 counties in 2014, and in general the political geography points to a state hotly divided between  Hennepin, Ramsey, Olmsted, and St. Louis counties and the rest of the state.  Democrats have lost the farmers, and the dwindling density of the percentage of the state collectively bargaining means that it too may soon lose what is left of labor.
The partisan divide ha produced a polarization that has wrecked havoc on Minnesota.  It has included government shutdowns and repeated special legislative sessions that are no long special but the new normal.  But the intensity of the political divide has over the last decade, and especially in the last two years, taken the state to the level of constitutional fights.  When the Minnesota Constitution was significantly overhauled in 1972 it provisions were the product of the political consensus of the times, reflecting shared understandings about how the state and it various entities should work.  That shared consensus and understanding is gone, and with it the glue that held together state politics and the constitution.
Perhaps the first case in this new era of constitutional politics  was Brayton v. Pawlenty, 781 N.W.2d 357 (Minn. 2010), challenging the authority of the governor to use his unallotment powers to balance the budget when he simply disagreed with what the DFL Legislature wanted to do.  Then there were the 2011 Ramsey County Court decisions In re Temporary Funding of Core Functions in the Executive Branch of Minnesota and  In re Temporary Funding of Core Functions in the Judicial Branch of Minnesota that allowed for the funding of the state government even though there governor and the legislature had not agreed on a budget.  In 2012 the Republican Legislature was unsuccessful in its attempt to bypass the governor and amend the Constitution to change the law regarding voting and same-sex marriage. And last year the State Supreme Court failed to resolve the constitutionality of the governor’s use of the line-item veto to eliminate funding for the state legislature in response to their passage of budget bills he did not like.   While the Court did not officially rule in favor of Dayton in Ninetieth Minnesota State Senate v. Dayton, 903 N.W.2d 609 (Minn. 2017), it effectively acquiesced this use of the line-item veto because the legislature was not without resources to act.
All this brings us to January 3, 2018.  Most notably the date will be known as the one where Senator Al Franken was replaced as US Senator by Lieutenant-Governor Tina Smith who was nominated to that post by Governor Dayton.   This leaves a vacancy in the Lieutenant-Governor’s position and according to Article V, Section 5, of the Minnesota Constitution: “The last elected presiding officer of the senate shall become lieutenant governor in case a vacancy occurs in that office.”  That would make it Senator Michele L. Fischbach (GOP)  who would become Lieutenant-Governor, creating a vacancy in her position and necessitating a special election for her senate seat under Article IV, Section 4, of the Constitution.   Except that Fischbach does not want to give up her Senate seat and she and Republicans are trotting out a Minnesota Supreme Court decision State ex rel. Marr v. Stearns, 72 Minn. 200 (1898) as precedent to allow her to retain both her senate and lieutenant-governor seats.  There are lots of good reasons to think that precedent is bad law,  including the fact that some of the constitutional provisions at play in that decision were repealed  by amendment in 1972.
But the validity of the precedent is immaterial, as is who really fills the lieutenant-governor vacancy.  The case is about politics.  Democrats hope that forcing Fischbach out might shift the balance of power in the Minnesota Senate slightly, which was controlled 34-33 by the Republicans after the  2016 elections and which now is 34-32, pending a special election to replace a DFLer who had to resign.  Assume Democrats win the seat, forcing Fischbach out shifts the Senate to 33-33.  Once Fischbach becomes Lieutenant-governor, look to see a lawsuit filed to challenge her ability to hold both positions.  With a Dayton-appointed majority on the Minnesota Supreme Court, she will lose.  But the timing of the litigation, when a decision is issued, and when a special election occurs may all impact the Senate balance of power.  And at the end of the day, forcing Fischbach and Republicans to spend money to litigate and run for her seat again (Fischbach has said if she is forced out of her Senate seat she will run for her Senate seat again in a special election and if she wins will then resign as Lieutenant-governor) is worth it to some DFLers.
The other major January 3, 2018 event is Otto v. Wright County.  Here oral arguments will be heard challenging the authority of the State Legislature to take some audit authority from the State  Auditor by allowing counties to hire their own private auditors.  The case raises important constitutional law questions about separation of powers (may the legislature remove some powers from a constitutional office without undermining its core functions) and perhaps the single-subject rule (since the provision that authorized this was snuck into a larger bill with a variety of assorted and arguably unrelated provisions).  Otto v. Wright County has looming and important constitutional questions that will affect the state, but this case too was rooted in petty partisan and possibly intra-party fights that were meant to damage Rebecca Otto’s political ambitions.
Look for more constitutional battles in 2018 and beyond.  These battles will take the form of litigation and constitutional amendment.  These battles are the product of a political consensus that has broken down, challenging the norms and shared understandings that held state politics together for the last 50 years.


  1. David, you and other commentators keep making a great deal out of the DFL supposed desire to force a special election in Fischbach's district as some means of flipping control of the state senate, as if this was a driving force behind Tina Smith being named to replace Al Franken. Do you actually have sourcing on this other than Tom Bakk making a public statement about how they think they could win the seat? (Because that's a thin reed to stand on, what else is the minority leader supposed to say? "No, we'll get our asses handed to us, that district is so insanely red we'll be lucky to field a candidate who has a job."?)

    Beyond that, it's not like Tom Bakk or DFL Senate leadership had any real say in the decision to name Tina Smith. Bakk and Dayton neither like nor trust each other. This frantic "the DFL is trying to game the system!" meme is the fever dreams of GOP operatives desperate to get the media saying bad things about the DFL. I'm disappointed you're falling for it.

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