Pawlenty’s Judges

On Monday, the Minnesota Supreme Court released opinions in several high-profile cases related to two important constitutional amendments, one establishing the definition of marriage and the other relating to a new voter-ID requirement.  The court was divided in its opinions, with the four justices appointed by Governor Tim Pawlenty (David Stras, Barry Anderson, Christopher Dietzen, and Chief Justice Lorie Gildea) forming the majority.  

In the voter-ID case, liberal organizations including Common Cause, the ACLU, and the League of Women Voters sought to have the proposed constitutional amendment thrown off of the ballot on the basis that the ballot wording was misleading and erroneous. The majority concluded:

The ballot question asks the people to decide whether the Minnesota Constitution should be amended to require that all  voters present “valid photo identification” to vote in Minnesota.  We acknowledge that the ballot question, as framed by the Legislature, does not use the same words used in the  amendment itself nor does it list all of the potential effects of implementation of the identification system contemplated in the proposed amendment.  These failures may be criticized, and it may indeed have been wiser for the Legislature to include the entire amendment on the ballot.  The proper role for the judiciary, however, is not to second-guess the wisdom of policy decisions that the constitution commits to one of the political branches.  The people are the sole judge of the wisdom of such matters.  Our precedent provides us with a much more limited role in reviewing the constitutionality of the manner in which the Legislature submits proposed  constitutional amendments to the people.  The failures about which petitioners complain do not meet the “high standard” required for the judiciary to intercede into a matter that is constitutionally committed to the legislative branch.  Breza, 723 N.W.2d at 636.  We therefore hold that petitioners have not met their burden to prove that there is an error that requires correction. 

In the marriage case, supporters of the proposed amendment asked the court to require the Minnesota secretary of state to use the language approved by the legislature for the title of the ballot measure: “Recognition of Marriage Solely Between One Man and One Woman.” (The secretary of state had rewritten the title to “Limiting the Status of Marriage to Opposite Sex Couples.”) The majority concluded:

[W]hen the Legislature passes a title for the ballot question in the legislation adopting a proposed constitutional amendment, that is the “appropriate title”  the  Secretary of State must provide under Minn. Stat. § 204D.15, subd. 1. Based on our construction of Minn. Stat.  § 204D.15, subd. 1, we hold that the Secretary of State erred and exceeded his authority when he provided titles for the ballot questions on the proposed marriage  and voter identification amendments different from the titles chosen by the Legislature.  Instead, the appropriate titles the Secretary of State must  provide are the titles passed  by the Legislature in Chapter 88, section 2(b), 2011 Minn. Laws 364, and in Chapter 167, section 2(b), 2012 Minn. Laws 145-46.

In both cases, the majority relied heavily on relevant texts and the original meaning of those texts, precedent, and fidelity to the concept that judges play an important and structurally defined role with respect to the actions of the other branches of government. Governor Pawlenty’s campaign for the Oval Office was short-lived, but, as these cases demonstrate, his impact on the Minnesota Supreme Court will not be.

Carrie Severino — Carrie Severino is chief counsel and policy director to the Judicial Crisis Network.

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