Local media challenge closed meeting on Minnesota sex offender program

Media outlets in Minnesota are challenging a federal judge’s decision to close to the public and the media a court meeting with state officials on the state’s sex offender program.

They say that the Aug. 10 legal conference, which may be attended by more than two dozen state officials, may influence the future of the sex offender program and the public deserves to see what happens.

Judge Donovan Frank ruled in June that the Minnesota Sex Offender Program is unconstitutional because it keeps about 700 offenders confined for long periods without determining whether they continue to pose a threat to the community.

Frank then called an Aug. 10 conference with state officials to consider the future of the program, but said it was a pre-hearing conference and that the public and media will be barred.

Gov. Mark Dayton and high-ranking legislators are among the two dozen or more public officials expected.

Among the media companies involved in the motion to open the meeting are the Star Tribune, Pioneer Press, the Associated Press, MinnPost, public radio and local television stations and others.

The media organizations have filed papers in the case; they say the meeting is not a routine procedure and should be open.

“There is nothing routine about inviting a vast array of high-ranking public officials who are not parties to the litigation, nor is it routine to have not only a magistrate judge present but also an Article III judge and a special master,” says a draft of the pleading. The motion says:

“In other words, far from a mere scheduling session, the pre-hearing conference may well be a dynamic policy-making session at which the Governor, the Speaker of the House, the Majority Leader of the Senate, the Attorney General, members of the Sex Offender Civil Commitment Advisory Task Force, and others consider the bullet-point list of possible “remedies proposals” found in the Court’s June 17 order (and possibly other options).

“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, given the number of people invited to the pre-hearing conference, details on what transpires there are likely to find their way to the news media and then to the public despite any and all efforts by the Court to maintain secrecy.

“Thus the Court should consider not only the constitutional guarantees of access but also the possibility that the parties’, the public’s and the judicial system’s interests would be better served by allowing journalists to observe the conference in person and make a full and accurate account to the public, as opposed to forcing them to rely on second-hand accounts and interpretations.individuals’ constitutional rights. 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.”

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