ALBERT LEA, MINN. - Bar owner Lisa Hanson carried her crusade against COVID-19 mandates Wednesday into a Freeborn County courtroom, where she went on trial for defying Gov. Tim Walz's executive order last winter temporarily shutting down restaurants and bars to halt the virus' spread.
But Hanson, who is representing herself in court, once again found herself battling officials in the legal establishment who found many of her arguments without merit or in violation of law or court procedure.
Chief District Judge Joseph Bueltel ruled most of Hanson's opening statements out of order and overruled her on more than 30 objections that she raised during the trial's first day.
Hanson, 57, is charged with six criminal misdemeanor counts of violating Walz's emergency powers order of Nov. 18, 2020, that authorized a four-week shutdown of bars and restaurants for any inside service or dining. Each count carries a fine of up to $1,000 and 90 days in jail.
While most businesses complied with Walz's order, Hanson was among a smattering of bar and restaurant owners who stayed open. She vociferously opposed the order, urging the public on her Facebook page to patronize the Interchange, her bar-restaurant in downtown Albert Lea, which sold wine and beer, food and coffee. She supported a January march and rally through the city that drew more than 100 people.
After Hanson was charged, she left town but was eventually arrested in Iowa. The Interchange has been closed since February, and city officials plan to terminate her lease in the city-owned building she occupies as of the end of this year.
In a separate legal action brought by state Attorney General Keith Ellison, Hanson was fined $9,000 for contempt of court, and Olmsted County District Judge Joseph Chase last month ordered her to pay $18,000 in civil penalties.
"Her lawless assertion of personal freedom put at risk the safety of her community," Chase wrote. "I find her deliberate, self-publicized repeated violations of the governor's orders under these circumstances to be in bad faith."
Ellison this week hailed that decision, calling Walz's executive orders reasonable and constitutional. "Ms. Hanson thought the law did not apply to her and her business," he said. "She was wrong."
The criminal trial will be decided by a jury of three women and five men that will be pared to a total of six once both sides wrap up their cases.
It was apparent that Hanson's trial would not be ordinary from the moment it started Wednesday morning. After Albert Lea City Attorney Kelly Dawn Martinez made a brief opening statement, Hanson told the jury the court had prohibited her from challenging the constitutionality of Walz's orders, an assertion that drew an immediate objection from Martinez.
The judge sternly told the jury to disregard Hanson's statement.
"I will instruct you on the law," Bueltel said. "She is making a legal argument which is improper as an opening statement."
He told Hanson that she could only speak on the facts in the case. When Hanson tried to argue with him, the judge said, "You can't argue the law in the opening statement."
Hanson then turned to the jurors and asked if they planned to convict her for exercising free speech. Bueltel told the jury to disregard that remark as well.
The judge later explained that Hanson could not raise constitutional issues in court unless she had first formally raised objections with the state attorney general. Hanson said she believed she had done so, but Bueltel said he had received no notice of that. After she was finished, there was a lengthy sidebar discussion among Bueltel, Hanson and Martinez in which the judge appeared to be lecturing her.
Hanson repeatedly objected as the prosecution presented its case, stating that inspectors and law enforcement officials had no authority to crack down on her because Walz's executive orders were not "enacted law." Bueltel overruled each of the objections.
The opening witness was Carla Cincotta, chief enforcement officer with the Minnesota Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement Division, who provided a series of Facebook postings and TV news accounts of Hanson's defiance of the executive orders. "I have a right to legally operate our business," Hanson wrote in one of the posts and referred several times to Walz's "tyrannical" orders.
Other witnesses from the division, along with state Health Department inspectors, testified that they had visited the Interchange and witnessed people eating and drinking inside the restaurant in December 2020.
Though Hanson sat alone at the defense table, she had support and encouragement during breaks from her husband, Vern, and consultant Keith Haskell, who said he was associated with an organization called the National Action Task Force in Washington, D.C. She also had seven supporters in the gallery.
"She's doing a fantastic job representing herself," said Cathy Studier, 62, of Glenville, Minn.
Paul-Michael Anderson, 42, of Albert Lea, said he was dismayed by the court's efforts to keep Hanson from raising constitutional arguments. "They can't let her win," he said, adding that it would encourage other businesses to take the same position if she did.