Legislature heading for collision with courts over White Bear Lake level

Receding water levels of White Bear Lake. Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News/ File

The Minnesota Legislature is thick with lawyers in its ranks so it’s hard to believe that when the Senate followed the House in passing legislation to ignore a judge’s order addressing water levels in White Bear Lake, they didn’t know it’s probably unconstitutional.

Ramsey County District Court Judge Margaret Marrinan last year found the Department of Natural Resources violated state law by failing to prevent suburbs from pumping too much water out of the aquifer that feeds the lake, and requires them to use Mississippi River water as a source instead.

She ordered the DNR to review all groundwater permits within five miles of White Bear Lake to determine whether pumping is sustainable. She also said the DNR must enforce a residential lawn watering ban when the lake drops below a certain level, and require well owners to have contingency plans for switching to surface water.

Backers of a bill to overturn the ruling say the judge, who is now retired, went too far.

“The judge did not simply just order damages to the plaintiffs,” said Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, one of the affected communities. “The judge has stepped in and said, ‘You’re going to spend money.’ ”

That’s the sort of thing the Minnesota Court of Appeals — and, perhaps, the Minnesota Supreme Court, would decide. That’s the way the constitution works. It’s pretty much Government 101.

But in America, only a third of the population can correctly identify the three branches of government, so it’s not particularly surprising, then, that there’d be confusion among state lawmakers over who has the power to do what. It’s why lawyers live in nice houses.

“It looks very much like a separation of powers problem,” Mitchell Hamline School of Law Professor Mehmet Konar-Steenberg tells the Pioneer Press. “We are going to grant a stay that the judiciary refused to. There’s an irony there: In trying to remedy what they saw as a separation-of-powers problem, they might have created another.”

Gov. Mark Dayton would still have to sign the bill for it to represent a major challenge to the judiciary in Minnesota.

“If they need another year to try to work out a better resolution, I could certainly — I wouldn’t veto that,” Dayton said on Monday. “I’m not going to take a position on the bill, one way or the other.”