In a hearing Monday, several justices of the Minnesota Supreme Court criticized the Star Tribune’s arguments that a state-created insurance agency should open its records to the public.
An effort by the Star Tribune to obtain records from the Minnesota Joint Underwriting Association (MJUA) has turned into a two-year legal battle that has reached the state’s highest court. The outcome could have major implications for the public’s access to records held by government-created entities that operate like a business or nonprofit.
Star Tribune attorney John Borger faced blistering questions from justices who seemed skeptical that the MJUA became an “agency of the state” when the Legislature created it in the 1970s.
Borger said the state’s data practices act granted access to the MJUA’s records because a public body formed it for a public purpose — to provide insurance to providers like doctors, nursing homes, hospitals and bars, which need coverage to stay in business. But the MJUA’s policyholders are considered such a high risk they cannot get covered in the private market.
“This agency was created … to further an end of Minnesota state government,” Borger said.
Justice Christopher Dietzen asked Borger why the MJUA should be considered a public entity even though it was not specified as such under state law.
“I’m having trouble getting my head around that,” Dietzen said.
The justices sounded more sympathetic to the argument made by MJUA attorney Paula Vraa, who told the justices that the association is not a state agency because it is funded by private groups, not taxpayers.
“If there are no public dollars involved,” Justice G. Barry Anderson told Borger, “I’m not sure that supports your argument.”
The Star Tribune reported in 2013 that the MJUA has spent at least $32 million over the previous decade to settle claims. That includes $12 million to resolve 169 claims filed against health care providers, some of whom were accused of crippling or killing their patients.
Because most MJUA policyholders have to prove they can’t get insurance from the private market, some contend the MJUA keeps bad providers in business. Supporters of the group say it provides an essential protection for consumers to allow them to recover damages in cases of harm or negligence.
In early 2013, the Star Tribune sought records of policyholders from the association. In response, the MJUA sued the Star Tribune. Ramsey County District Judge Margaret Marrinan sided with the newspaper and ordered the MJUA to immediately provide the records.
The MJUA appealed, and in June the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled in its favor, saying that when the Legislature formed the MJUA in 1976, it did not intend for it to be a state agency.
The last time the state Supreme Court took up a similar issue, it limited access to records. The Timberjay newspaper in Ely sued for access to contracts between the St. Louis County School District and Johnson Controls. The court in 2013 ruled that those records were not public. The next year, the Legislature passed a law restoring public access to those and similar types of records.