A Hennepin County Family Court referee said he wants to rule by Friday whether to unseal U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison's divorce file in response to a legal effort by the Star Tribune and Alpha News.
Referee Jason T. Hutchison explained after an hourlong court hearing on Tuesday that if he did decide to unseal the file on Friday, it would still not be available for immediate public view. Instead, he would set a later date for opening it that would allow time for Ellison's attorney to appeal the decision.
The motions follow allegations by Ellison's ex-girlfriend, Karen Monahan, that the Democratic candidate for attorney general tried to drag her off a bed during an argument in 2016. He denies the allegation. An attorney hired by the DFL Party to investigate the allegation could not substantiate it after Monahan refused to share a video of the incident that she has said she recorded.
Carla Kjellberg, an attorney for Ellison, asked Hutchison not to unseal the entire file but instead suggested he make public any abuse allegations and argued that the subject was the sole reason the two publications sought the documents. The referee briefly pushed back on that point, saying such court files "are usually filled with affidavits replete with information" that the press and public can use to vet the credibility of statements made on the campaign trail.
Leita Walker, an attorney representing the Star Tribune, argued that unsealing a six-year-old divorce proceeding would not "materially" affect existing privacy or safety concerns of either Ellison or his ex-wife, Kim Ellison. The referee acknowledged that the Ellisons' role as public officials made the case unusual and added that because both Ellison and his ex-wife are public officials, anyone can often find their schedules or locations online. Kim Ellison is a member of the Minneapolis Board of Education.
Kjellberg also focused on the political leanings of Alpha News, which is a Twin Cities-based, right-leaning online news and opinion site. She earlier argued that Alpha News "regularly provides a forum for those expressing fringe views regarding the supposed threat which American Muslims pose to their nation." Ellison is Muslim, and Kjellberg wrote last week that the exposure of details about Ellison's life "could be exploited by someone wishing to do them harm."
"You cannot ignore the fact that this is a highly contested and not normal political environment with regard to this particular race," Kjellberg said in court on Tuesday. "That has always been true with Mr. Ellison because he has always been the first Muslim." (Ellison became the first Muslim elected to U.S. Congress in 2006.)
Nathan Hansen, an attorney for Alpha News, told Hutchison that Ellison would have a legal remedy for any incidents of slander that were to come from anyone accessing the file. He said religion should not be a factor in the court's decision. Walker, the Star Tribune's attorney, said it would not be right to deny the public access even if one of the parties is "perceived as fringe."
Kim Ellison signed onto a joint memorandum last week arguing against unsealing but has not retained an attorney and did not appear in court on Tuesday. Susan Ellingstad, the attorney who authored the DFL's investigative report, interviewed Kim Ellison as part of her probe and wrote that she "firmly stated" that Keith Ellison did not inflict any abuse, "physical or otherwise," "before, during or after" their 25-year marriage.