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As arguments near, ND Legislature fires back at Burgum in veto dispute

Outside the North Dakota Supreme Court chambers. John Hageman / Forum News Service

BISMARCK—The North Dakota Legislature said this week an attorney general's opinion doesn't negate vetoes issued by Gov. Doug Burgum, as two branches of state government continue to trade legal arguments before the state Supreme Court.

The Legislature's brief, filed Monday, Feb. 12, again asks justices to determine whether several vetoes the governor issued last year are void. It also asks the court to find that Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem "lacks standing" to join Burgum in a cross-petition that challenges parts of two bills the Legislature passed.

The latest legal brief comes as oral arguments before the state's highest court inch closer. Attorneys have been asked to reserve the morning of March 19, but that could change.

Stenehjem said they'll file a response to the latest filing by Feb. 26.

The Republican-led Legislature initiated the legal dispute in December when it petitioned the state Supreme Court in a challenge to five of Burgum's vetoes on parts of budget bills lawmakers passed in the 2017 session. Stenehjem responded in January, asking the court to reject the lawmakers' petition because "it does not present actual controversies of a justifiable nature."

But in a cross-petition, Stenehjem asked the court to declare sections of two bills unconstitutional because they give the Budget Section, an interim legislative committee, too much power.

Monday's reply, drafted by two Bismarck attorneys representing lawmakers, argues those sections are constitutional. Moreover, it said there is no legal authority for Stenehjem to challenge the Budget Section provisions.

"To grant the attorney general unfettered standing to challenge a legislative enactment when his office has no direct stake in the outcome would seriously disturb the balance of powers between the three branches of government," the Legislature's brief states.

The Legislature also said an attorney general's opinion "does not constitute law and does not supplant this court in ruling upon the constitutional questions presented."

Stenehjem, a former state lawmaker who lost the 2016 Republican primary election for governor to Burgum, issued an opinion last year that said Burgum overstepped his authority on some vetoes. The governor, in a court affidavit, said the opinion "resolves the question of the effectiveness" of the vetoes.

The dispute started just after the Legislature adjourned in late April 2017, when Burgum vetoed at least parts of nine bills. A powerful interim legislative committee voted in September to pursue legal action, a move criticized by Burgum as a waste of taxpayer money but one that some lawmakers said was needed to clarify the roles of the legislative and executive branches of government.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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