A federal judge has barred the media and other members of the public from attending a legal parley on a case that will determine the future of Minnesota’s sex offender program, a ruling that immediately raised questions about public access and open government.
The ruling, issued Thursday, drew instant criticism from prominent lawmakers, the Star Tribune and advocates for open government, all of whom questioned why a meeting of such importance would be held in secret. Gov. Mark Dayton, who is expected to attend, said he thought it should be public. More than two dozen public officials, including Dayton and leaders from both legislative chambers, have been invited to attend the Aug. 10 conference and bring ideas for reforming the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP).
U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank, who last month declared that MSOP violates the U.S. Constitution by detaining hundreds of sex offenders with little prospect of release, offered no explanation in his ruling for closing the conference.
His silence baffled some lawmakers and fueled speculation that Frank and state officials may want to discuss some politically unpopular reforms, such as the expedited release of convicted rapists and child molesters.
“It defies reason to think there is some cause advanced by secrecy here,” said Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, chairwoman of the committee that oversees the program. “We are talking about a major public policy issue affecting real people. It makes no sense.”
Star Tribune senior managing editor Suki Dardarian said the newspaper is weighing its legal options and may challenge the ruling in court. “This conference involves a critical matter of great public interest and import — the unconstitutional lockup of sex offenders — and it will be attended by as many as two dozen public officials, many of them elected lawmakers,” she said. “It’s important to us and to the public that this matter be handled transparently.”
The Aug. 10 conference is significant because it marks the first time since Frank ruled the program unconstitutional in June that a wide range of lawmakers, state administrators and county prosecutors will gather to discuss solutions to the systemic flaws identified in his ruling. Those invited include Dayton, state Attorney General Lori Swanson, Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson and Senate Majority Leader Thomas Bakk.
Frank emphasized the gravity of the meeting in his June 15 ruling on the constitutionality of MSOP, suggesting that alternatives to an agreed course of action might be unsavory. “The court is hopeful that the stakeholders will fashion suitable remedies so that the court need not consider closing the MSOP facilities or releasing a number of individuals from the MSOP,” Frank wrote.
A lengthy trial earlier this year aired criticism of the program, both by medical professionals and offenders under detention, and Frank has called the program “clearly broken” and “draconian” in earlier rulings. Those problems include a lack of clear guidelines to show when offenders are progressing through treatment, an absence of periodic assessments to determine whether offenders are still dangerous enough to require confinement, a discharge process plagued with delays and a lack of less restrictive community treatment options.
Asked about the meeting at a Tuesday news conference, Dayton said, “I think it should be open, but it’s not my call to make.”
“It is pretty unfortunate that the veil of secrecy will be pulled down over this,” said Mark Anfinson, a Twin Cities attorney who specializes in First Amendment and communications law. “When a federal judge intrudes this deeply into state government decisionmaking, [the judge] ought to be very zealous about making sure people understand what is going to happen as a result of that intrusion.”