North Dakota Supreme Court: 4 of 5 Burgum vetoes ineffective, but legislative committee given too much power
BISMARCK — The North Dakota Supreme Court declared four out of five of Gov. Doug Burgum’s partial vetoes challenged by state lawmakers are ineffective in a long-awaited decision released Monday, July 30.
But in a defeat for the Legislature, the court struck down parts of two bills as unconstitutional because they gave an interim legislative committee too much power over the state’s purse strings. It said the Legislature “encroached upon the executive and consolidated the power to both make and execute the laws into its own hands.”
Burgum and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who defended the governor, both welcomed the decision in separate statements. Stenehjem’s office said the court decision was “consistent” with an opinion he issued prior to the legal dispute that determined three of the partial budget bill vetoes were invalid, a point Burgum had already conceded.
“The Supreme Court validated our original intent, which was to protect executive branch authority from encroachment,” Burgum said in a statement.
Both Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, and House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, said they had not had a chance to read the opinion after it was released late Monday afternoon.
At the center of the dispute between the first-term Republican governor and the Republican-controlled Legislature were questions over the constitutional authority afforded to their respective branches of state government. Lawmakers asked the third branch to weigh in late last year, months after the end of the 2017 session.
The legal tussle culminated in oral arguments before the five-member court in March, an extraordinary hearing that packed the courtroom at the state Capitol. Burgum sat at a front table next to Stenehjem, his one-time political rival who defended him at the podium.
The state constitution allows the governor to veto items in appropriations bills while allowing the rest to become law. But in an opinion requested by legislative leaders months before the court case, Stenehjem said Burgum overstepped his authority in some cases because he tried to strike conditions or restrictions on spending without vetoing the appropriation itself.
Justices said Burgum cannot “withdraw” a veto by agreeing with the attorney general. They said the bills with unauthorized vetoes became law in their entirety.
The court’s 36-page majority opinion, written by Justice Jerod Tufte, only upheld Burgum’s veto of “$300,000 to an organization that provides workplace safety.”
Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle as well as Justices Daniel Crothers and Lisa Fair McEvers partly dissented from the opinion.
In countering the lawmakers’ petition, Stenehjem targeted bill language he said gave the Budget Section, a 42-member committee that meets between the Legislature’s biennial sessions, "unfettered discretion to determine whether a law passed by the entire Legislative (Assembly) takes effect or not” and usurps the governor’s veto power.
For instance, one bill said $1.8 million set aside for an information technology project could only be spent with the committee’s approval, which the court said was an improper delegation and a violation of separation of powers.
“The Supreme Court’s decision is a recognition of the democratic process and the importance of the checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches of government inherent in our constitution,” Stenehjem said in a statement.