MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A federal judge on Friday denied a media request to open up a meeting where top Minnesota leaders are expected to discuss ways to fix the state's civil commitment program for sex offenders.
U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank said the request by a media coalition, which included The Associated Press, was "without basis in law, and, accordingly, is without merit."
Frank had earlier ruled that the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, which keeps more than 700 sex offenders locked up indefinitely after they finish their prison sentences, is unconstitutional. He invited Gov. Mark Dayton, state lawmakers and other top officials to meet Monday to discuss ways to fix it.
Several media outlets and professional organizations for reporters sought access to that meeting, arguing that it's not routine because of the participants and stakes involved.
"The future of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program is at stake and is of significant public concern — the program and its administration impact public safety, public expense, and individuals' constitutional rights," the media's motion stated. "The press and public therefore have a significant and legitimate interest in observing discussions on that topic by their elected leaders and those leaders' political appointees."
Attorneys for the media outlets said they were disappointed with Frank's order. Randy Lebedoff, general counsel for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, said the media outlets had just received it and were "evaluating what to do."
Frank said that even if there is a First Amendment right of access, that wouldn't apply to this conference, which he likened to preliminary mediation or settlement talks. He said he invited state leaders to the table so there can be a "full discussion of the opportunities and obstacles to settlement or other resolution."
Frank said he believes the best way to resolve the program's constitutional issues would be for all stakeholders to come together to fashion a solution that will both protect the public and the rights of those who have been committed.
"The Conference allows for candid discussion of the difficult issues surrounding resolution in this case," Frank wrote. "The private meeting setting will also allow for creative thinking, both with the large group and perhaps in smaller groups."
He said he expects the meeting will include discussions on how to proceed and set the stage for more talks. He added that no decision on remedies or injunctive relief will be made at the meeting, and a public hearing will be held later. He also noted that meeting participants aren't barred from talking about the conference afterward.
Program changes could cost millions and put sex offenders in less-restrictive settings. The case has been closely watched nationally because at least 19 other states have civil commitment laws for keeping offenders confined after completion of criminal sentences.
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