Suit against regents proceeds despite announcement

by Josh Linehan

Despite the unveiling of the Board of Regents’ choice for a new University president, litigation against the board for violating Minnesota’s open meetings and open records laws will proceed.

Lawyers for the media companies filing the suit said the decision to name interim University President Robert Bruininks as the lone finalist for the job only proved open meeting laws had been violated.

The regents must have met to whittle the list down from the earlier “five to seven” candidates to one finalist, attorney Mark Anfinson said, meaning the board followed through with its resolution to set aside Minnesota law.

“That’s just outrageous,” said Anfinson, The Minnesota Daily’s attorney. “You talk about expressing contempt for the legal process in the most vivid way possible.”

The media organizations met Thursday after the announcement of Bruininks’ selection in the morning. Many of the state’s largest newspapers – including the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Daily and the Rochester Post-Bulletin – have joined the suit.

Legal papers will be filed in Hennepin County District Court sometime today, Anfinson said. The suit will seek various penalties as authorized by both laws, he said, though the main goal is simply to get a legal ruling in the case.

“The emphasis will be to get a court declaration that the regents violated state law,” Anfinson said.

University General Counsel Mark Rotenberg, who will defend the regents in the case, has denied comment until the suit is filed but said he was prepared to defend the regents’ interests.

The board is expected to argue it can legally exempt itself from state laws because it was created two years before the state itself.

The University won similar cases in the past, exempting itself from such laws as the Veteran’s Preference Act with regard to hiring.

University law professor Fred Morrison said despite such precedent, the new case poses unique problems for the judge who hears it.

“Minnesota courts have been reasonably strict when interpreting the open records and open meetings laws,” Morrison said.

Two issues make the decision especially sticky, Morrison said.

First, the Board of Regents is a state agency, and a court would be wary of the precedent set by allowing them to exempt themselves from state law – especially with regard to open-records practices.

On the other hand, Morrison said, judges have long avoided interfering in academic hiring practices.

“I think that’s much more important if it’s a teacher and not an administrator, but it certainly will play a role,” he said.

Josh Linehan covers student life and welcomes comments at [email protected]