Trial date set in media lawsuit

Brad Unangst

An initial court date was set Friday for a lawsuit filed against the University’s Board of Regents for allegedly breaking state laws during its recent presidential search.

The lawsuit was filed in November by lawyers representing five of the state’s biggest newspapers – including The Minnesota Daily – claiming regents violated Minnesota’s open meeting law and data practices act.

Hennepin County District Judge Pamela Alexander is scheduled to hear the University’s motion to dismiss the case Jan. 31.

Alexander replaces Judge LaJune Lange, who was originally assigned to the case but was rejected by University General Counsel Mark Rotenberg last Monday.

Rotenberg declined to comment on why he wanted Lange removed but was pleased that a hearing date was set.

“The reasons why parties strike a judge in this judicial district are typically not discussed,” he said.

In a letter to the Daily management, Mark Anfinson – the Daily’s attorney – called Alexander’s appointment “very positive.”

“I suspect we will not object to her assignment,” he added.

Legal experts said the removal of Lange is not significant to the case.

Hamline law professor Mary Jane Morrison, whose expertise is in constitutional and criminal law, said both sides should benefit from Alexander’s assignment.

“She’s experienced in handling difficult constitutional issues,” Morrison said.

Alexander has handled several high-profile cases, including State v. Russell, according to a Hennepin County Web site. In that ruling, Alexander struck down a state statute imposing separate penalties for crack and powder cocaine and stated the law violated the state’s constitution.

The University’s motion asks that the case be dismissed on grounds that regents are not subject to data practices and open meeting laws when conducting University presidential searches.

“She won’t grant a dismissal, I think,” Morrison said.

Rotenberg has said the regents acted within their rights according to the University’s charter – the institution’s governing document – during the presidential search process. He said the charter was entirely incorporated into Minnesota’s constitution.

Anfinson – also a lawyer for the Minnesota Newspaper Association – has questioned the legality of the University’s argument, saying the University cannot pick which state laws it will abide by, especially when it receives funding from the state.

If Alexander does not dismiss the case, lawyers for both sides are likely to ask the judge for an immediate ruling based on state law, Morrison said.

Rotenberg said it is likely he would appeal the decision, all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court if necessary.

“I can’t imagine this matter will simply be resolved at the district court level unless the plaintiffs are prepared to concede their position,” Rotenberg said.

Alexander might deny those motions, leaving the lawyers to finish building their cases to be heard at a later date.

Brad Unangst welcomes comments at [email protected]