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Stenehjem asks ND Supreme Court to reject lawmaker petition challenging Burgum vetoes

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, right, talks with Doug Burgum, left, in Fargo, N.D. on Nov. 24, 2015. Carrie Snyder / Forum News Service

BISMARCK, N.D.—North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, on Friday, Jan. 12, asked the state Supreme Court to reject arguments from lawmakers who challenged Gov. Doug Burgum's vetoes, arguing that two bills passed last year give too much power to a subset of the Legislature.

The response was filed about a month after state lawmakers petitioned the court over five of Burgum's vetoes on parts of four budget bills funding higher education, the Department of Commerce, the State Water Commission and the Department of Trust Lands. Lawmakers asked justices to determine the legal effect of Burgum's partial vetoes.

Friday's reply, signed by Stenehjem and Deputy Solicitor General James Nicolai, asks the court to reject the legislators' petition because "it does not present actual controversies of a justifiable nature." The legislators' claims on three vetoes don't merit court consideration, the response states, because Stenehjem had already declared them ineffective in an opinion requested by legislative leaders last year.

But Stenehjem's response asks the court to declare sections of two bills unconstitutional in part because they violate the separation of powers doctrine. It challenges sections that give the Budget Section, an interim committee of 42 lawmakers, "unfettered discretion to determine whether a law passed by the entire Legislative (Assembly) takes effect or not" and usurp the governor's veto power.

Multiple North Dakota attorneys general have addressed the constitutionality of Budget Section activities during the past three decades, the response states, including Stenehjem himself.

"I agree with the attorney general's opinion and his conclusion that delegation of legislative authority to the Budget Section subset ... is unconstitutional and violates the separation of powers doctrine," Burgum wrote in an affidavit.

The legal battle has put the one-time political rivals on the same side of the courtroom. Burgum defeated Stenehjem in 2016's Republican primary race for governor.

Lawmakers have said their petition was intended to clarify the roles of the legislative and executive branches of state government. Republicans who hold a supermajority in the Legislature have denied the effort represented a political tussle with the first-term governor.

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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