Arguing that citizens shouldn’t be locked out of a court hearing that could produce reforms to Minnesota’s troubled sex-offender treatment program, the Star Tribune, New York Times and 13 other news and open-government organizations have asked a federal judge to reverse himself and allow the public to attend the Aug. 10 conference.
In a motion filed Thursday in St. Paul, an attorney for the organizations said, “The future of Minnesota Sex Offender Program is at stake and is of significant public concern — the program and its administration, impact on public safety, public expense and individuals’ constitutional rights.”
The Monday hearing was scheduled by U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank, who concluded in June that the MSOP is unconstitutional and ordered state leaders to produce solutions.
An assistant to Frank said Thursday the judge won’t comment on the request while it is pending.
The MSOP holds about 700 convicted sex offenders, most of whom have completed prison terms but have been deemed too dangerous for release.
A class-action suit filed by several sex offenders argued that it violates their constitutional rights by confining them indefinitely without proper treatment or realistic prospect of release.
During the yearlong course of litigation, Frank has warned lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration that he could impose dramatic, court-ordered changes if they fail to make changes of their own.
In a June 17 order, the judge wrote that the “moral credibility of the criminal justice system” is at stake.
Dayton has “action plan”
Separately on Thursday, Dayton told reporters that he’ll present the judge with an “action plan” to reform the sex offender program.
The governor did not provide specifics, saying, “We’re still trying to clarify exactly what the parameters are going to be, but I’m coming prepared to present an action plan.”
Dayton, who has said he favors opening the meeting to the public, said he hopes to learn “what it’s going to take in terms of legislative language and more importantly … money” to satisfy the federal judge.
Others invited to the “remedies phase prehearing conference” include GOP and DFL leaders from the Legislature, Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson and state Attorney General Lori Swanson.
“The prehearing conference may well be a dynamic policymaking session,” the open-court motion said. “Indeed, the end result of the discussions that start on Aug. 10 could be the release of certain sex offenders from civil commitment.”
Thursday’s motion was filed under the First Amendment principle that what transpires in courts is public. It quoted a recent New York Times story that said at least 19 other states with “civil commitment” laws are following the case closely.
“This case is at the forefront of an issue that is being decided all over the country,” David McCraw, a lawyer for the Times, said Thursday.
“While it’s a Minnesota case, I think it’s going to be a trendsetter.”
McCraw said it doesn’t make sense to exclude the public when the court is searching for remedies.
Thursday’s motion, filed by Minneapolis attorney Leita Walker, said the judge has explained that he closed Monday’s hearing because it will be similar to mundane “scheduling conferences” normally held in chambers and not attended by the public.
“But there’s nothing really typical about this,” Walker said.
Star Tribune Managing Editor Suki Dardarian said the public deserves to observe important discussions that affect the future of the state.
“We are gratified by the strong support from other media organizations, evidence of the critical importance of transparency involving this and other public policy issues,” she said.
Filing the petition were: the Star Tribune, New York Times, Associated Press, Minnesota Public Radio, CBS Broadcasting on behalf of WCCO-TV, St. Paul Pioneer Press, St. Cloud Times, KSTP-TV, Minnesota Broadcasters Association, Minnesota Newspaper Association, MinnPost, Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists, Public Record Media and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Washington, D.C.
In the motion, the organizations request that Frank release a full transcript of the hearing if he decides to keep it closed.
Staff writer Ricardo Lopez contributed to this report.
Tony Kennedy 612-673-4213