What’s Next In Minnesota: A Virtually-Certain Ruling For Franken — And Big Choices For Pawlenty

So with the Minnesota Supreme Court having heard arguments yesterday in Norm Coleman’s appeal of his defeat in the Senate election trial (check out our coverage here, here, here and here), what comes next?

I spoke today with Prof. Larry Jacobs of the University of Minnesota, and he predicts that the state Supreme Court will likely put out a ruling by the end of the month — and that this ruling will be for Franken, based on their very sharp questioning of Coleman’s lawyer yesterday. “I would take from that session that the judges may have already written a good part of their decision,” said Jacobs, “because their thinking was very far along, and there were a number of them on the same page.”

At that point, the outcome here really hinges on one man: Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who announced today that he is not running for a third term in 2010.“Pawlenty’s decision not to run for governor could be a lead-up to a decision to run for President,” said Jacobs. “And Pawlenty’s decision to run for President makes it more likely, not less, that he will support Coleman’s efforts to appeal to the federal courts when he loses in the Minnesota Supreme Court. So I think the bottom line here is, Gov. Pawlenty’s political agenda may end up driving how he handles the Senate recount.”

I asked Jacobs about how Pawlenty said today — not for the first time — that he would obey the decision of a court to issue a certificate of election. But Jacobs still sees wiggle room here. “Signing it — and how quickly you sign it — those are two different things,” Jacobs explained. “If Norm indicates that he’s going to be filing in federal court, the Governor may just say, ‘you know, I am gonna sign it, I’m just waiting to hear from my legal counsel that this is appropriate.'”

Indeed, Pawlenty has given some mixed signals. Shortly before the trial court ruled for Al Franken, Pawlenty said that even after the state Supreme Court handed down a ruling, he would have to look at the ruling, and evaluate the strength of any remaining issues for potential appeal. That said, a court ruling that demanded an immediate certification might not leave him much wiggle room.

Meanwhile, Coleman could go looking for a federal court somewhere to hand down an injunction against a certificate, based on his complaint that the state has violated the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the 14th Amendment. Indeed, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn — who has said the case could take “years” to resolve — has also said a federal court should issue an injunction in order to prevent the issue from being mooted.

Jacobs doesn’t think it’s likely that a federal court would want to get involved. “I think any federal court is going to be very leery about jumping into state elections,” he said. “Basically, the courts don’t want to create a whole new line of business.” But the Republicans could still try to do it — and whether they succeed or not, there could be some potential delay.

The bottom line: If Pawlenty quickly were to sign a certificate in an orderly fashion, then Al Franken would be on his way to the Senate, and the national GOP’s interest in bankrolling Coleman’s legal fight would probably evaporate pretty quickly. But if there does end up being any continued delay, then this could extend for weeks or even months longer.

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