by John Augustine
Over 60 people gathered on Feb. 21 for the occasion of the 40th annual Legislative Evaluation Assembly of Minnesota Legislative Awards Banquet. Keynote speaker Anthony Sanders from the MN chapter of the Institute for Justice (IJ) talked about the merits of judges taking action to preserve our constitutional framework, and IJ’s role in the legal battles for economic freedom. The event was held at the Kelly Inn next to the MN State Capitol.
Nine people (Reps. Steve Drazkowski, Sondra Erickson, Kathy Lohmer, Duane Quam, Linda Runbeck, and Peggy Scott; also, former Reps. Mark Buesgens, Keith Downey, and Doug Wardlow) were honored for their voting records in the 2012 Minnesota House. Eight of the nine were able to give remarks to the crowd while picking up their awards.
One of the most memorable acceptance speeches came from Mark Buesgens, who retired from the MN House after the 2012 session. He was even more blunt than usual about the leadership opportunities that were squandered: “A plethora of political consultants are going to take a lot of money from a lot of very wealthy people to figure out what went wrong in 2012—I can answer that. [Last biennium], the state of Minnesota for the first time had a GOP-led Senate. How many Senators are in this group of LEA honorees? It’s not too hard to figure it out.” Buesgens also let the group know why he values LEA awards above all others: “As a legislator you can gather a whole lot of awards. Just be anything to anybody at any time and you can win awards. A former legislative colleague of mine has a personal mission . . . to accumulate as many awards as possible. But there’s one award he doesn’t have. And that’s why I’m so honored to be here one last time among colleagues who have won this award. You folks aren’t folks who go out and seek recognition, glory, some kind of false sense of fame. You are in the trenches and do what you do because it is right. To be honored this one last time by you folks is so humbling, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
Next, the audience heard from the only legislator to receive an award each of the past two years, Steve Drazkowski. He agreed with Buesgens that the easy path for taking votes “is to pander to lobbyists who make you feel good.” Drazkowski then spoke about the corruption and constitutional violation happening with sitting legislators serving in an agency (the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board) and taking contributions from companies pursuing IRRRB grants. “Help us get the word out as we try to root out this corruption and bring our state government back in line with the constitution,” he implored.
The next honoree to speak, Sondra Erickson, had the highest score in LEA’s 2012 Report. “I’m just so grateful . . . that you are courageous enough to take a look at legislation, track us, and hold us accountable,” she said.
Linda Runbeck, who had previously won LEA awards years ago while serving in the Senate, shared with us her belief that “we’ve never had a bigger fight on our hands.” She then shared with us her wish that LEA were “a million-dollar organization, because what you stand for everybody needs to understand. They need to see what we’re voting on, to read this [report], and understand the issues.”
First to speak among the first-time honorees was Kathy Lohmer, who told us, “I don’t consider myself a politician, but I am a representative who takes this responsibility very seriously. . . Please pray for us. We really need God’s wisdom, strength, stamina, and courage.”
Also new to the honoree podium was Duane Quam. “I appreciate what you’re doing,” he said, “but frankly I don’t look at whether something is scored. I look at whether it meets the principles and ideals of the Founders. To be honored by peers of such people is great.”
Another new honoree, Peggy Scott, echoed remarks of others about how treasured an LEA award is for principled legislators: “My [district] predecessor, Chris Delaforest, told me the one you really [should] go for is the LEA award, because it’s more encompassing.” She then gave us a glimpse of her cohesive governing philosophy:
The moral and fiscal fit together, they’re intertwined; you cannot address one without addressing the other. If you have the breakdown of the family . . . you’re going to have more government and more government spending, because those breakdowns cause more reliance upon government, because the family and churches aren’t there to hold people up as they should.
The last new honoree to speak, Doug Wardlow, just finished a two-year stint in the Minnesota House. He heard the audience urge him to run for elected office again, and then gave them a sample of the eloquence he displayed during his short time in public office:
There was a time . . . when Americans generally understood and agreed with the things listed in [LEA’s] credo. They understood that the Constitution is a culmination of Western civilization and the Anglo-Saxon tradition of inherent rights endowed by our Creator. People do not understand that now, they’re asleep . . . It is so wonderful to be with people who are awake and alive to the reality of what values matter. And what makes this award different from other awards is that it’s an award about principles.
After a tribute to two recently-departed statesmen and important figures in LEA’s history (Walter Klaus and K.J. McDonald), LEA board member Sue Jeffers introduced keynote speaker Anthony Sanders from the Institute for Justice. Sanders focused his remarks on a little-discussed reason for rampant government growth—judicial abdication of ruling on the constitutionality of laws. Sanders outlined IJ’s four main areas of litigation (school choice, private property rights, free speech, and economic freedom), and explained that IJ focuses on them because of a belief that “if you have freedom in those four areas, you can pursue the American dream.” He recalled how fun it was to work with Jeffers to expose a city that was trying to limit “interstate sales of pumpkins and Christmas trees.” He also noted that though IJ did not prevail in its most famous court battle (the Kelo eminent-domain case), the public outcry to the decision was strong enough that 44 states (including MN) passed laws in the wake of that decision to protect against eminent-domain abuse. The property-rights cases have shifted to issues such as challenging government inspections of one’s home without probable cause.
Sanders then moved on his main topic, challenging judicial passivity. He used the issue of occupational licensing to support his argument: “In 1950, less than five percent of workers needed government permission to earn a living; it’s over 30 percent now. Why is that? Because more and more laws have been passed. Why? One of the checks and balances hardly ever happens—judicial review.” The idea that judges need to defer to the legislature on the legitimacy of laws–because the legislature embodies the will of the people—is a departure from judicial review, a concept he said could be traced back before America’s founding all the way to the rulings of Sir Edward Coke in Elizabethan England. IJ tried to challenge a Louisiana law requiring that florists be licensed, on the basis that it was anticompetitive and without any evidence that the law did any good, but a passive judge declined to overturn it, stating that a rational basis for the law might be found in protecting citizens from infected dirt, even though that is mentioned nowhere in the law. This passivity also has surfaced in election law, where judges are deferring to lawmakers’ supposed expertise in elections rather than checking lawmakers’ vested interests in protecting themselves with these laws.
That kind of passivity leads to legislators feeling empowered to make almost any law. It’s not as though legislators are so perfect that they would think “OK, if this is enacted, the judge may just rubber-stamp it, so I have to be extra careful,” said Sanders. In fact, research has shown that less than one percent of all laws are struck down by the courts as unconstitutional, which one would think would be less than the margin of error, he argued. He concluded by noting that in the few areas where courts are willing to intervene to defend the constitution, such as free-speech cases, you tend to see legislative hearings that examine the possible constitutionality of laws. In the question-and-answer portion that followed the speech, he acknowledged that there also need to be checks on judges (such as term limits or real elections), since all parts of government need to be reined in by checks and balances.