Gov. Mark Dayton said Wednesday that he will appear before a federal judge in person in August to defend the state's controversial sex offender program, which the judge recently declared unconstitutional.
Dayton said he feels strongly enough about the constitutionality of the program that he will postpone a long-planned trade mission to Mexico if necessary. The governor had been scheduled to fly down with a delegation of state officials and business leaders on Aug. 9. The hearing before U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank is scheduled for Aug. 10. Dayton said he is looking into whether the hearing date can be moved but told reporters Wednesday that appearing in court would be his priority.
"If it remains that date, then I'll just postpone the trade mission," he said.
Dayton reiterated his stance that he believes the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) is constitutional, and that he planned to appeal Frank's ruling.
"It's really impossible to predict whether or not [sex offenders in MSOP] are at risk to reoffend," Dayton said. "So the more protection you can give to the public, as far as I'm concerned, given their history, is entirely warranted and that's what this program does right now."
If the program is still found to be unconstitutional, Dayton said, "we'll have to look at what the options are." He added, "I don't think any parent in Minnesota wants to subject their daughter or their son to a probability. They want to make sure their government is doing absolutely everything conceivably possible to make it 100 percent safe to walk in the park or to or from school."
The state attorney general's office last week requested in a letter that Frank amend his order to allow for "an immediate right to appeal," signaling the administration's intent to file an appeal.
Frank's ruling, as currently written, does not clear Minnesota to appeal to a higher court, because no final judgment had been rendered on key counts against the state.
"To make what will be some very drastic changes in terms of the program, in terms of facilities, in terms of cost … deserves appellate review," Dayton said Wednesday.
Frank last week ruled that the Minnesota Sex Offender Program violates the U.S. Constitution by confining offenders indefinitely, without giving them access to the courts and other protections of the criminal justice system. The program operates through the state Department of Human Services and contends that those in its care are "clients" receiving treatment, not prisoners.
In his order, Frank ruled that the program, designed to treat offenders for sexual disorders had, instead, become punitive by wrongly confining behind razor wire those who could be treated in less restrictive community settings, such as halfway houses.
Frank did not order the immediate release of sex offenders but has made clear that legislators would have to make changes or face a court-imposed solution. The upcoming hearing with stakeholders is to "fashion suitable remedies," Frank wrote in his ruling.
"In terms of galvanizing the Legislature for some action … it's going to be expensive, it's going to be unpopular and from my standpoint, undesirable," Dayton said. Nonetheless, he said, "it behooves us to get into those discussions with the judge."
Dayton said he would need to learn more about possible remedies and a time frame before considering calling lawmakers back for another round of lawmaking ahead of next year's legislative session, slated to get underway in early March.
A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he also plans to attend the hearing.
It is not yet known whether House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, will be at the hearing.
At his Wednesday news conference, Dayton called the completion of a preliminary environmental impact review of the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine "a major step forward," but cautioned that "I made it very clear I wasn't going to prejudge the adequacy of the [environmental review]."
Dayton also indicated his ongoing displeasure with the abolishment of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's Citizen Board and said he plans to attempt to revive it.