U not responsible for legal fees

Than Tibbetts

The University will not have to pay legal fees for several media organizations, including The Minnesota Daily, which sued the institution about access to its 2002 presidential search, the state Supreme Court ruled last week.

Local news organizations – the Daily, the Star Tribune, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Rochester Post-Bulletin and the Minnesota Joint Media Committee – won their lawsuit against the University in July.

The Supreme Court ruled that the Board of Regents broke state public information laws by withholding presidential finalists’ names and holding closed meetings in the 2002 presidential search. The regents selected President Bob Bruininks out of three finalists.

The media organizations filed suit under Minnesota’s Open Meeting Law and the Data Practices Act. The University contended that its constitutional autonomy allowed it to bypass the meeting law and conduct the confidential search.

Media groups’ attorneys requested that the University pay more than $300,000 in legal fees.

John Borger, attorney for the Star Tribune, said the newspaper’s actual fees were $239,000 through August.

“The victory cost us and cost the University quite a bit of money,” he said. “The amount spent is a reflection of the significance of the principle that was at stake.

“The suit establishes once and for all that the ‘U’ is subject to those laws of public access, the same as any other government institution.”

The fees would have added to an already large legal bill. The University had spent $207,000 by the time the case was heard in the state Supreme Court in March.

University General Counsel Mark Rotenberg said in a statement that the University administration takes comfort in knowing that the Supreme Court recognized a constitutional foundation and a reasonable legal basis for the University’s case.

The court’s decision also stated the importance of selecting a University president as a reason for denying the attorneys’ fees.

“I am pleased with the court’s unanimous decision we received today,” Rotenberg said. “We believe that this matter is now concluded.”

Mark Anfinson, attorney for the Daily, said he was not surprised by the ruling.

“It was worth trying, but it’s pretty clear the courts don’t usually grant these requests, certainly in cases where larger news organizations are involved,” Anfinson said.

He said the Star Tribune’s attorneys’ fees were larger than the other media organizations’ fees that were in the lawsuit.

The ruling will likely end the case, he said.

– Molly Moker and The Associated Press contributed to this report.