In the flurry of pages that typically accompany a court’s decision — within judges’ long and sometimes long-winded justifications of their legal reasoning — lies a critical source of our divided government’s legitimacy.
The courts are given great power. While there are many reasons judges’ determinations are respected, it is in no small part due to this: When judges rule on a substantive issue, they don’t simply announce their decision. They detail how they reached their conclusion within the lawful framework of constitutional safeguards, precedent and procedure. The more important the matter, the more important it is to have an explanation.
It is for this reason that a recent major ruling on Minnesota’s costly and controversial sex offender civil commitment program is deeply disappointing. Earlier this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit put a hold on implementing long-overdue reforms to the program, which locks people up for “treatment” for years, even decades after they’ve served their jail sentences.
The court’s explanation for this forceful intervention? A paltry three sentences, which mainly set an April 12 court date for oral arguments on whether the reforms go forward.
The sex offender program’s soaring costs — now at $84 million a year — and its dubious constitutionality have long been under debate in Minnesota. Weak-willed politicians fearing “soft on crime” charges have dithered on responsible reforms to rein in costs and ensure that the program is treating clients rather than incarcerating them indefinitely (and retroactively).
Constitutional safeguards allow for the first, but not the second. For years, legal experts have warned that the state has crossed this line. This fall, U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank concluded the same after months of trial, study and unsuccessful attempts to get Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders to reform the program without judicial intervention.
The reforms ultimately ordered by Frank were modest. He ordered the state to figure out who should be in the civil commitment program and who could be managed in a less-intensive, less-costly but still secure program — a path forward that the Star Tribune Editorial Board supports. The state filed an appeal that ignominiously made Frank the issue, arguing that he’d become a crusader.
On Dec. 15, the state won a round in this legal battle when the Eighth Circuit granted a stay on the reforms. But the brief order it issued provided no rationale.
That’s troubling when the outcome of the decision leaves the program’s 722 clients in the dark. That number very likely includes some people who are being detained in prisonlike settings unconstitutionally. The court’s decision means they’ll be there for months longer as the court hears arguments, deliberates and then rules next year.
So how did the court rationalize a status quo that takes away civil liberties outside the United States’ system of traditional protections? Justices should have provided an explanation, especially in an era when so many Americans fear government overreach.
Minnesota policymakers are also left in limbo. But they are free, as they were before, to do the right thing on their own. Lawmakers and Dayton’s administration should continue the efforts underway to comply with the reforms ordered by Frank, instead of interpreting the Eighth Circuit’s brevity as a reason to punt again on the work that must be done.