MN Supreme Court Upholds Dayton Defunding of Legislature

The following analysis of today’s Minnesota Supreme Court ruling on the use of the line-item veto in legislative funding was written by Harry Niska, pro bono counsel for American Experiment’s amicus brief in this case.


The Minnesota Supreme Court has issued a decision in the lawsuit filed by the Legislature challenging Governor Dayton’s line-item veto of the Legislature’s funding. In a 5-1 decision (with Justice Stras recused), the Court acknowledged that the line-item vetoes might overstep Governor Dayton’s constitutional authority, but nevertheless rejected the Legislature’s legal challenge, allowing Governor Dayton’s line-item vetoes to stand.

This is a case that the Center has been very interested in. As you may recall, we were the only party to file an amicus curiae brief in this case, in which we argued that the line-item vetoes violated the separation of powers by attempting to unconstitutionally coerce the legislature.

The Minnesota Supreme Court ruling was based on its conclusion that the legislature has sufficient funds to survive until next session, so the legislative branch had not been “effectively abolished,” as the district court held. This conclusion that the Legislature has sufficient funds is based heavily on the potential transfer of funds from the Legislative Coordinating Commission.

The majority opinion acknowledges there is a serious question about whether Gov. Dayton is attempting to unconstitutionally coerce the legislature, but decided that issue needed to be resolved between the other branches.

Justice G. Barry Anderson wrote a powerful dissenting opinion, arguing that the line-item vetoes did functionally abolish the legislative branch, and they were undertaken in order to unconstitutionally coerce another branch of government. He disagrees with the majority’s application of judicial restraint because “[c]oncerns about executive overreach are neither a recent development nor unique to the current dispute,” and “failing to act here permanently tilts the balance of powers in favor of the Executive.”

Justice Anderson also rejects the majority’s efforts to “push[] the legislative bankruptcy date to sometime after the commencement of the 2018 legislative session,” writing that “[t]hese discussions about what loose change can be found and when it can be spent to keep the Legislature operating are interesting but ultimately irrelevant.” As a result, he would “conclude that the Governor’s post-session line-item vetoes of the entire appropriations for the Legislature effectively abolished an independent branch of our government and therefore violated Article III of the Minnesota Constitution.”

In addition, Justice Anderson concluded that Governor Dayton exceeded his authority by attempting to unconstitutionally coerce the legislative branch:

Here, the Governor cancelled every dime appropriated to operate a co-equal branch of government that is established by Article IV of our constitution. Then, the Governor told the Legislature to accede to his demands or remain financially unable to fulfill the powers conferred on the Legislature by our constitution. There are coercive actions that are unclear, where perhaps judicial restraint would be appropriate, where the “pearl of great price” is something other than the continuation of one of three co-equal departments of the government. Those are not the actions we now consider. The Governor’s message was neither tentative nor unclear; he offered the Legislature two choices, neither of which has any foundation in the powers conferred on the Executive Branch by the constitution. We need not set out a rule for all time as to when a veto is unconstitutional because of coercion. It is enough to state based simply on the Governor’s words that his exercise of the line-item veto power was unconstitutionally coercive.

Unfortunately, the majority did not follow this view, and as a result, they allowed (in Justice Anderson’s words) the creation of “three unequal branches of government.” Governor Dayton’s line item vetoes, and this unfortunate decision by the Minnesota Supreme Court, will doubtless invite further abuses of executive power in the future. Future governors, and perhaps future legislatures as well, will continue to push the limits of their power, relying on this precedent to argue that the courts should not rule on separation of powers disputes.