The state's highest court unanimously ruled Wednesday that an insurance agency created by the Legislature does not have to make its records public.
The decision ends a two-year legal battle between the Star Tribune and the Minnesota Joint Underwriting Association, which sued the newspaper in 2013 seeking to block access to its records.
The MJUA was created by the Legislature to offer liability coverage for providers like doctors, nurses and hospitals that are considered such high risk they cannot get insurance in the private market.
The MJUA "clearly and unambiguously, is not a state agency," the court ruled, in a decision written by Justice David Lillehaug.
The Star Tribune sought records on policyholders covered by the MJUA, arguing that because the association was created by a public body for a public purpose — keeping hospitals, doctors and nursing homes in business — its records should be accessible.
The MJUA countered that it is not a public body because it is funded by its policyholders, not taxpayers.
"The MJUA is pleased with the decision, because of its concerns for the privacy of its policyholders," said Paula Vraa, the MJUA's attorney. "The Supreme Court recognized that MJUA receives no state money, could not bind the state, and thus, was not a state agency."
The Star Tribune's attorney, John Borger, said: "We continue to believe that the public has a significant interest in knowing how the MJUA conducts its business. Perhaps the Legislature will correct the court's narrow approach to public access."
The Star Tribune reported in May 2013 that the MJUA had spent at least $32 million over the past 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.
After the MJUA sued the Star Tribune in 2013, a Ramsey County district judge 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.
The Supreme Court's ruling is unlikely to have any broader impact on the public's access to records, because it was limited to the MJUA's data, said Mark Anfinson, an attorney who represents the Minnesota Newspaper Association.
While he called the ruling "disappointing," Anfinson said the legal battle may help the Star Tribune and other media outlets as they seek access to government records, as those agencies may not be as willing to go to court to keep records from the public.
The last time the state Supreme Court took up a similar issue, it also limited the public's access to records. The Timberjay newspaper in Ely sued for access to contracts involving the St. Louis County School District and Johnson Controls. The court in 2013 ruled that those records were not public.
The following year, the Legislature passed a law restoring public access to those types of records.