On April 29, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed the Department of Natural Resources’ January 2018 decision renaming Lake Calhoun as Bde Maka Ska. Since then, there has been considerable confusion about the ruling and the DNR’s decision to appeal.
There is also great passion on both sides of the debate regarding the lake’s name. The DNR understands that people have strong perspectives on the history and meaning associated with each name. But I’d like to step back from that debate and discuss how the DNR understands its role in the naming of geographic features and its decision to appeal the recent ruling.
For many years, there were separate parts of state law that addressed the different roles of counties and the DNR in naming geographic features, including the state’s lakes and other bodies of water. These roles were codified in separate statutes. Counties were allowed to rename bodies of water whose names had been in use for less than 40 years.
The DNR was allowed to rename geographic features, with the approval of county boards, regardless of how long the name had been in use. This understanding of the statute was affirmed in two separate opinions of the Minnesota attorney general.
In 1990, these separate provisions were combined into a single chapter of state law. The Legislature expressly stated that combining the laws was not intended to alter the DNR’s naming authority and did not impose the county boards’ 40-year limitation on the DNR.
Since 1990, the DNR has approved county requests to rename 112 geographic features. Some of these actions were to replace names that violated community standards (e.g., the legislatively directed process to eliminate the use of “squaw”), while others have addressed redundancy, multiple names for the same feature, or spelling.
The DNR approves county requests when they meet state naming criteria, such as avoiding redundancy or patently offensive names, and when the county has followed public process and procedural requirements.
This was the case with Hennepin County’s request to rename Lake Calhoun as Bde Maka Ska.
The DNR clearly needs a way to work with county boards to address desired renaming. We believe that current law provides that authority. In a decision that would set statewide precedent, the Minnesota Court of Appeals has ruled otherwise.
The Minnesota Constitution, Article XII, Section 1, expressly prohibits the Legislature from renaming individual geographic features. Consequently, the Appeals Court opinion leaves no mechanism to rename geographic features in Minnesota if the name has existed for 40 years or more.
Of equal concern, and even broader implication, the Appeals Court ruling opens the door for people to challenge a range of final agency determinations well after established appeal periods. This presents the potential for considerable disruption to orderly government decisionmaking. In the current matter, the group Save Lake Calhoun had raised its case through a “writ of quo warranto.” But the District Court dismissed the challenge to the renaming, concluding that the writ was an improper mechanism to bring such a challenge.
The Appeals Court reversed the District Court, using an unprecedentedly broad interpretation of what constitutes an “ongoing exercise of authority” and is thus subject to a writ of quo warranto. Under this interpretation, many agency decisions could be interpreted as involving an ongoing exercise of authority and thus be subject to court challenge. This lack of finality has significant implications for the individuals, businesses and local governments that make investments and take other actions following decisions by DNR and other state agencies.
The DNR recognizes that Minnesotans have deeply held perspectives regarding the names Bde Maka Ska and Lake Calhoun. I also understand that Minnesotans have a variety of opinions on the appropriate process for renaming geographic features. However, as the commissioner of DNR, my job is to implement the law as I understand it.
While I do not welcome spending limited agency resources on a Supreme Court appeal, there are fundamental legal questions raised in the ruling that go well beyond the naming of an individual lake. It is my responsibility to seek clarity from Minnesota’s highest court in this instance.
Sarah Strommen is the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.