The Minnesota Senate is one of only 11 state senates with four-year, unstaggered terms. As a result, no senate seats are on the ballot in two out of five general elections. That practice is contrary to the constitutional framers' intent; they thought they were providing for staggered senate terms.
For more than two decades after statehood senate terms were staggered. But in 1883, Attorney General W. J. Hahn issued an opinion that senate terms were not staggered under the constitution's language. His opinion was occasioned by an 1877 constitutional amendment intended only to lengthen senate terms from two to four years when biennial legislative sessions were adopted. The Minnesota Supreme Court confirmed Hahn's interpretation under unusual circumstances in 1948.
This quirk of history -- the result of poor drafting of the constitutional language and an aggressive use of the "plain language" rule of construction by Hahn -- changed the Minnesota legislature. Aside from being contrary to the founders' intent, it has affected both partisan control of the senate and how senators carry out their duties. This article details the history of how that came about and discusses the effects on the legislature.
The author, Joel Michael, is a retired legislative analyst and legal services coordinator for the Research Department of the Minnesota House of Representatives. From 1976 through 2019 he served as a legislative analyst, providing research and legal advice, as well as drafting bills for members of the House of Representatives. He graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1975.