Constitutions are meant to be vague. Those documents are foundations for our state and national governments. They set down the basic principles and powers of our governments. The legislature, executive and courts decide the details.
That works fine until something odd happens.
Something odd has happened and it’s time for an update to Minnesota’s Constitution.
The chain of unusual events started when Sen. Al Franken resigned amid charges of sexual misconduct.
Minnesota’s Democratic governor, Mark Dayton, appointed his lieutenant governor, Tina Smith, to replace him.
That move sent both political parties to their law books and copies of the Minnesota Constitution that calls for the president of the Senate to become lieutenant governor.
The current Senate president is Republican Michelle Fischbach, who represents the Sartell-St. Stephen and St. Joseph areas in District 13.
Fischbach and Republicans argue she can do both jobs. DFLers say the Constitution prohibits her from holding both offices and they want her to resign her Senate seat. A Ramsey County judge will decide the matter after a Democrat in District 13 filed a lawsuit.
The Constitution says “No senator or representative shall hold any other office under the authority of the United States or the state of Minnesota, except that of postmaster or of notary public. If elected or appointed to another office, a legislator may resign from the legislature by tendering his resignation to the governor.” The words “shall” and “may” provide room for dispute.
There are practical and political arguments on both sides.
First the practical. Fischbach’s claim she can do both jobs makes sense. This is a short legislative session focused on bonding, Fischbach is an experienced legislator and Dayton and his lieutenant governor won’t be running for re-election. Fischbach’s seat isn’t open until 2020. If Fischbach resigns her Senate seat, the governor would call a special election to fill it. She has offered to collect only her Senate pay.
The real battle hangs on the political issues because the Republicans could lose control of the Senate. They hold a narrow 34- to 32-seat advantage. If a DFLer wins a special election to replace Dan Schoen (a Democrat) who resigned after sexual harassment claims, then the Senate would be split 34-33. If the DFL wins the lieutenant governor case in court, the split would be 33-33 pending an election to replace Fischbach.
The courts may end up deciding the issue. A permanent solution would be to amend the state Constitution so the governor can appoint a new lieutenant governor to be confirmed by the Senate.
In 1857 when the Constitution was written, there was so much discord that Democrats wouldn’t sign a document with Republican signatures and Republicans wouldn’t sign a document bearing the signatures of Democrats.
There is evidence both documents were presented to Congress when it approved Minnesota’s Constitution and the state was admitted to the Union on May 11, 1858.
Now 160 years later, the tradition of discord continues.