The Hennepin County District Court closed public access this week to an office where citizens, attorneys and the media can view and obtain court documents, while comparable offices remain open in other counties.
The sudden closure was rolled out amid confusion from court officials. Some other public counters in the downtown Minneapolis courthouse, including an office where parking tickets can be paid, remain open.
Open government advocates criticized the closure.
"Even though there's a pandemic … it doesn't mean you squelch open government accountability and the public's ability to access government records," said Rich Neumeister, who has spent decades fighting for government transparency and access. "That's outlandish."
The county's public records and self-help counters are located in the same area. Citizens can use computer terminals to view and print criminal charging documents, lawsuits, search warrants and civil filings such as divorces and child support cases, among others.
Such records are public data under Minnesota law.
County court spokesman Spenser Bickett said the closure was COVID-19 related, and that the office will reopen "soon" when the county can establish an appointment system for using the computers.
"I can tell you we do not have a specific date for the reopening of the Records Center, but we hope to reopen it in the next two weeks," he said.
An appointment system was employed earlier this year because of the pandemic; the county transitioned back to a first-come, first-served system with social distancing.
"As with any operational changes we have made during the pandemic, our primary goal is the health and safety of our employees and court users," said Bickett, who declined to say whether a COVID infection among staff or a scare with the public led to the change.
Kyle Christopherson, spokesman for the state Court Administrator's Office, said a Nov. 20 order by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea recognizes that counties can enforce closures or restrictions in light of the state's COVID infection rate.
"We know the temporary COVID-19 pandemic-driven restrictions on physical access to courthouses are disruptive for many Minnesotans," Christopherson said, "but these restrictions are paramount in order to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 while upholding Minnesotans' constitutional rights."
The pandemic has greatly restricted court proceedings and access in varied capacities throughout the year, but exceptions have been made all year for some in-person proceedings and courthouses across the state reopened several months ago to the general public.
Hennepin County Court Administrator Sarah Lindahl-Pfieffer sent staff an e-mail on Dec. 4 announcing closures starting Monday. She wrote that the decisions were made after "extensive discussion with staff and monitoring customer traffic."
Other public counters that were closed include: the violations bureau, juvenile records and family records, among others.
The following public counters remain open: the county's two suburban courthouses, the hearing office, a counter at the public safety facility and the psych services office.
A public counter on the 11th floor of the downtown courthouse where some documents can be obtained and where fines can be paid also remains open. It does not feature computer terminals for public use.
On Monday afternoon, a Star Tribune reporter arrived at the records office and found the door locked and the lights turned off about 30 minutes before the typical 4:30 p.m. closure. A sign on the door advised visitors to make an appointment between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. Monday, Wednesday or Thursday to obtain records.
After two court spokesmen insisted that the office was open during regular business hours, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily, a reporter returned Wednesday afternoon. However, a large sign in front of the public entrance leading to a security check announced, "Self Help is closed," referring to the office. The sign directed citizens to call the statewide help center phone line or search for data on the state court website, which offers a restricted ability to find case numbers and a record of case events, but no actual court documents.
A security guard informed the reporter that the office would remain closed until at least February.
Bickett, who said security staff are not District Court employees and do not always have the most updated information, directed the public to the state court website for case information, and said they could request documents electronically or by mail with payment via check or credit card.
Documents cannot be viewed on the state website.
Ramsey County's public computer terminals remain open.
Neumeister said Hennepin County should take steps to safely keep its office open. While the office was shuttered soon after the pandemic led to widespread shutdowns, it later reopened with social distancing and disinfection protocols.
"They're not willing to take the time, the expense and the resource" to keep public records open, Neumeister said.