Minnesota Governor Dayton Vetoes Lawsuit Reform Bills

Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed four Republican-sponsored bills Friday that made major changes to the state’s civil legal system, describing the legislation as the product of special interest groups and again criticizing legislative Republicans, saying they’re “too extreme to lead.”

The bills were the first to land on the governor’s desk in the three-week-old legislative session, and his swift vetoes upset Republican leaders, who called the bills a genuine attempt to make the state’s court system friendlier to small-business owners.

“Frankly it’s just a little disheartening, it’s a little disappointing. I think it’s time for the governor to put the spears down,” said Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester.

The House passed the four bills earlier in the session with unanimous support from Republicans and some Democratic-Farmer-Labor party votes as well, though more Democrats voted against the bills than for them. The Senate passed the bills in 2011.

The bills would have cut the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits from six years to four, put limits on attorney fees in certain cases, created stronger appeal rights for designation of class-action lawsuits and reduced the interest rate on monetary judgments that are not paid while a case is under appeal.

Dayton criticized Republicans for both the content of the bills and the process by which they were passed.

“The real impact would be to reduce the rights of law-abiding citizens and businesses who seek justice for the wrongdoing of others,” Dayton said.

In addition, Dayton said Republicans failed to consult his administration, legislative Democrats or judicial branch officials while the bills were assembled. He suggested that three of them were directly inspired by nationwide lobbying efforts of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council.

“I’ve found that Minnesotans don’t want their laws written by lobbyists for big corporations,” Dayton said. He derided GOP notions that the changes would result in a better job climate.

“These bills are laughably referred to as, quote, jobs bills, closed quote. Well, calling a crow a swan doesn’t make it one,” Dayton said.

House Speaker Kurt Zellers said Dayton owes a better explanation to thousands of Minnesota business owners who belong to Minnesotans for Lawsuit Reform, a group that sought the changes.

“He can pick a fight with us all he wants, can call us names,” Zellers said. He said the bills were “about making Minnesota’s business climate more competitive.”

Pointing out that the Senate passed the bills last year, Zellers said Dayton’s administration had ample time to engage in the process that led to the final bills.

“These bills have been out there, they’ve been available, there’s no secrecy,” Zellers said.

The nascent 2012 session is most notable for the Senate’s rejection of one of Dayton’s cabinet appointees and now for Dayton’s vetoes. Amid these frayed relations, the governor will deliver his State of the State Address to a joint session of the Legislature on Wednesday night.