ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — When Gov. Mark Dayton, top legislators and other public officials head into a federal courthouse next month to discuss Minnesota's embattled sex offender program, the assembly will be closed to the public.
U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank issued an order late Wednesday that the Aug. 10 prehearing conference will be private under a court rule used to facilitate scheduling or possible settlement discussions. The judge said the setup was needed "to allow the court to hear and assess remedy proposals" ahead of a standard hearing in a later phase. The case involves the lockup of 700 dangerous sex offenders in a treatment program that Frank has declared unconstitutional but one that lawmakers have been hesitant to modify.
As part of a June ruling, the state officials were summoned by the judge to begin discussing alternatives to a program state lawyers have argued is legitimate. As many as two dozen elected officials, state agency leaders and attorneys for the sex offenders have been invited to participate. Dayton is delaying his trip to Mexico to attend, and said this week he presumed the conference would be public.
"It should be open, but it's not my call to make," the governor said.
Mark Anfinson, an attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, said the involvement of so many top officials on an important policy matter makes the conference itself unusual and the decision to keep the public and reporters out questionable.
"This could end up pretty well mixing the cake and baking it all in one secret session for all intents and purposes," he said Thursday. "Why somebody thinks that's a good idea is a head-scratcher to me."
St. Paul Pioneer Press editor Mike Burbach said his newspaper is pressing the judge for a deeper explanation, arguing the case differs from disputes among private parties.
"We're talking about a major, expensive, high-stakes program that the judge believes needs to be changed," Burbach said. "We're talking about the people's money and the people's interest."
Minneapolis Star Tribune managing editor Suki Dardarian said her newspaper is assessing legal options but hoping to achieve transparency without a challenge. "We believe the conference should be public, and we would hope that all of the parties and the court would come to that same conclusion," she said.
The class-action lawsuit working its way through the courts for years challenges the legality of Minnesota's civil confinement program for offenders gauged at risk of new crimes. Sex offenders held indefinitely in one of two high-security hospital settings argue it's tantamount to a life sentence even though they have completed their criminal penalties.
Frank sided with them but deferred ordering an immediate remedy, which prompted next month's court conference. His order Wednesday said state officials were asked to be ready "to present and discuss the relief they find appropriate."
An attorney for the sex offenders, Dan Gustafson, said he has no problem with the arrangement. He said anything that leads to a voluntary settlement — rather than drawn-out appeals — is preferable.
"This case has been going on for four years. It is time to move with some sense of urgency with respect to protecting the constitutional rights of these individuals," Gustafson said. "These discussions, although they are not open to the public, are going to be supervised by two highly competent jurists. I don't have any concerns about any back room deals that aren't going to see the light of day."
Magistrate Judge Jeffrey Keyes and Special Master Eric Magnuson, a former Minnesota Supreme Court chief justice who once chaired a state sex offender program task force, will preside over the conference in the federal courthouse in St. Paul.