JUDICIARY

Judiciary and Public Safety budget

The Senate Republicans’ judiciary and public safety budget proposal falls far short of keeping Minnesotans, corrections officers, or incarcerated people safe and adequately funding the state’s judicial branch.

The bill had only a $25 million target, which meant there was almost no new funding to be found to provide for safety or additional security personnel at our state’s prisons, despite the increased violence Minnesota is seeing in its corrections system. While the Senate Republicans provided funding for increased health care costs for employees, they only funded those increased costs through the biennium, and they did not provide for any additional funding for increased compensation for the state’s judges and staff.

The bill makes no serious new investments in the state’s judicial branch or corrections system, leaving prison guards and incarcerated people vulnerable and judges and staff underpaid. The public defender’s office and the guardian ad litem program are underfunded, and additional funding for the state’s disaster assistance contingency account, which provides funding for local communities in light of natural disaster, remains unsecured.

In contrast, the governor’s proposal provides additional funding for the courts, the guardian ad litem program, and the public defenders’ office, invests in the state’s school safety program and in gun violence prevention, and creates a task force on missing and murdered indigenous women.

The governor’s proposal better provides for the safety of Minnesotans, the security needed at the Department of Corrections, and for investments in the staff and judges that run the judicial branch.

Looking at the two budget proposals side by side paints a very different picture of priorities for Senate DFLers and Senate Republicans. Multiple attempts to increase funding in the bill were voted down by Republicans in the Judiciary Committee.

The Republican budget proposal has passed out of the Finance Committee, and work on the bill will continue after break. (SF 802)

DWI omnibus

A number of bills that aim to improve the state’s DWI laws and ignition interlock system were heard in committee during the first half of session and put together in a DWI omnibus bill.

Provisions in the omnibus include language that closes a gap in DWI-related laws for snowmobiles and ATVs. The provision continues the work of bills passed last year, including “Little Alan’s Law”, named in honor of the young boy who was killed by a man on a snowmobile that had multiple prior DWIs.

Other provisions would allow law enforcement to use stickers to mark license plates that have been invalidated under DWI law, which increases safety for police officers, allows conservation officers the same authority as peace officers for DWI issues (which came out of a discussion with the DWI task force), and makes adjustments to the ignition interlock system.

The bill is waiting for a vote on the Senate floor, but the House has not taken action on the bill so it is uncertain whether the bill will pass this session. (SF 753)

Data privacy omnibus

The Senate Judiciary Committee worked through the first half of session to put together a data practices omnibus, which includes a number of data privacy provisions that were heard as individual bills in committee.

Included in the omnibus is language that would classify all rideshare data as private, which is important as local municipalities continue to build out local transit options.

Also included is language that would require government officials to acquire a search warrant for data from cell phones and other electronics and language that would require law enforcement to obtain a search warrant before using a remotely-piloted aerial vehicle or drone for surveillance. The committee is working to keep ahead of quickly advancing technology to protect Minnesotan’s privacy.

Other provisions included would prohibit the selling or transfer of location data acquired by ignition interlock systems, make data sharing easier for certain Department of Human Rights cases, and delay the sunset on the Data Practices Commission.

The bill passed out of Judiciary Committee and was sent to the floor where it awaits a final vote. The companion bill is also waiting for a final vote in the House. (SF 1263, includes provisions from SF 468, SF 1432, SF 1431, SF 1710SF 1430, SF 2394)

Disaster assistance contingency account

The state’s disaster assistance contingency account was created in 2014 in order to get disaster assistance funds to cities without waiting for a special session. The fund is nearly entirely depleted and is facing a deficit of approximately $2.4 million.

The Department of Public Safety informed the legislature this year that due to $9 million in relief provided to 23 counties and one tribal nation from damages by severe thunderstorms, winter storms, snowmelt flooding, and torrential rains in 2018, as well as a major federal disaster caused by severe thunderstorms, flooding, damaging winds, and tornadoes that spent $5.5 million in 28 counties and three tribal nations, the account was left with an unencumbered balance of $500,000.

Since those disasters were declared, the city of Duluth was hit with a windstorm in October of 2018, resulting in $2.9 million damage and leaving a $2.4 million deficit in the account.

Since it was created, $52 million has been appropriated to the fund, and approximately $10 million is appropriated from the fund for disasters each year. The fund is working as it should but has also exhausted its funds.

A bill moving $10 million from the general fund to the disaster assistance contingency account has been signed by Governor Walz. The governor has also included $20 million in funding for the account in his judiciary and public safety budget recommendations. Senate Republicans have not included future funding in their budget bill. (SF 307)

Criminal sexual conduct

The Senate Judiciary Committee heard a bill in the opening weeks of session that makes a number of changes to the state’s criminal sexual conduct laws. Included in the bills is the repeal of the state’s marital rape exemption, updates to the state’s child pornography laws, and expanded crimes for some sexual criminal conduct. The bill passed out of committee and was sent to Finance.

The provisions in the bill are also included in the judiciary omnibus budget bill. (SF 111)

Legalizing cannabis

The Senate Judiciary Committee heard a bill early in session that would create a system to legalize, sell, and regulate the use of recreational cannabis.

Authors of the bill argued that public opinion on recreational cannabis is already ahead of the law and that the state deserves to have a conversation on legalization. Proponents of the bill argue that legalization benefits the health of many Minnesotans, that it is safer than alcohol and tobacco, that it will shrink the existing black market, and that it may be a strong source of revenue for the state.

Opponents of the bill argue that Minnesota is not ready for recreational cannabis and that the public health risks are too high to legalize it without further study on the effects of cannabis. They also argue that states with legalized recreational cannabis are only starting to see some of the negative effects it has on their citizens.

The bill contains a system for growth, taxation, regulation of sales, and expungement of records for those with a nonviolent criminal history related to small amounts of cannabis.

Unfortunately, the conversation burned out when Senate Republicans rejected every attempt to pass the legislation or continue the conversation. Senate Republicans refused to move the bill forward to the next committee or lay it over for further discussion in the Judiciary Committee. They also voted against setting up a task force to study legalization.

It is unlikely that recreational cannabis will come up again this session. (SF 619)

Racial covenants

Restrictive covenants have historically been used to restrict a person from occupying or owning a property based on race, religion, ethnicity, or social class. Many of the covenants used in Minnesota were racially restrictive covenants.

Minnesota has an incredibly high racial disparity in house ownership and a high level of racial segregation in neighborhoods. This is due in part to a history of racial covenants put into place by developers in Minnesota in the 1920s-1940s. The covenants have also affected and continue to affect home value rates and the ability of people of color to grow generational wealth.

A 1948 Supreme Court decision ruled that that racial covenants were unenforceable. The Minnesota legislature banned racial restrictions in warranty deeds in 1953. It wasn’t until 1968 that the Fair Housing Act made them explicitly illegal.

However, these racial covenants remain in many home titles. Over 17,000 of these covenants appear in home titles in Hennepin County alone.

A bill that would allow homeowners to add disavowing language to their deeds if it contains a racial covenant was heard in Judiciary Committee early this session. Proponents of the bill argue that it is important to keep the historical title intact for legal and history of ownership reasons but also to not wash out the history that racially restrictive covenants present.

The bill passed the House unanimously and is waiting for a final hearing in the Senate.

(SF 465/HF 51)

Corrections ombudsman

Minnesota was the first state in the country to create an ombudsman position for the Department of Corrections. Established in 1972, the ombudsman office was meant to be an independent office tasked with promoting strong standards of justice and handling complaints from within the corrections system. Unfortunately, the office was eliminated due to budget cuts in 2003.

A bill introduced this year would reestablish that office. This is especially important as the state’s Department of Corrections is seeing an increase in violence. The bill was heard in Judiciary Committee and laid over but not included in the committee’s budget proposal. Governor Walz funds the office in his budget proposal.

Reestablishing the office may be part of ongoing negotiations around the Judiciary budget.

(SF 1090)

Marital rape exemption

A bill that removes from statute the exemption from criminal sexual conduct if those involved were cohabitating as a couple or were married, commonly known as the marital rape exemption, is making its way through the Legislature this year.

The bill has been brought forward by a number of advocates. A testifier in committee told her story of her husband drugging her and then filming himself raping her while she was unconscious. He served only limited jail time on invasion of privacy after he used the marital rape exemption as a defense.

The bill passed unanimously in the House and was sent over to the Senate, where it’s passed Judiciary and Finance committees and is awaiting a final hearing on the floor. The bill is also included in the Judiciary omnibus budget bill. (SF 235/HF 15, SF 802)

Sexual harassment standard

In 1986, the Supreme Court found in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson that sexual harassment could be a form of sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 if (1) the harassment involves the conditioning of employment benefits on sexual favors, or (2) the harassment, while not affecting economic benefits, creates a hostile or offensive working environment. Employers could be held liable for the actions of their supervisors if the employers knew of the bad behavior.

Since Vinson, federal courts have wrestled with numerous fact situations in an effort to define what is “severe or pervasive,” often leading to results that some legislators now find questionable or even shocking. Minnesota state courts have adopted the Vinson standard.

Discussions started last year around changing the definition of severe and pervasive sexual harassment and resulted in a much simpler, much stronger version of the bill. However, after receiving push back on the bill from the Chamber of Commerce and a few other stakeholders, the author stalled the bill and it was never given a hearing in the Senate.The conversation ultimately died, and session ended without a bill being passed.

A weaker version of the bill was introduced this year. It has passed the Judiciary Committee and is waiting for a final vote on the Senate floor. The House has not heard the companion to this bill, choosing to instead hear and pass the original language from last year’s bill.

It is unknown if the bill will pass before the end of session or which form of the bill will pass if it does.

(SF 2295)

High-profile bills that haven’t received a hearing:

Gun violence prevention

Two bills introduced this session focus on curtailing gun violence. The first bill, extreme risk protection orders (ERPO) would allow law enforcement and family members to seek a court order temporarily restricting a person’s access to firearms when they show red flags and pose a danger to themselves and/or others. The second bill would extend criminal background checks to most private sales, gun show markets, and online transactions.

In a nationwide study from 2009 to 2016, roughly 42% of mass shootings produced documentation that the attacker displayed dangerous warning signs before shooting.

Minnesotans routinely complete background checks for the transfers of pistols and semiautomatic military-style assault weapons from dealers. This bill would apply that standard to all firearms and would extend the background check for the transfer of any firearm between almost all private parties.

Last year, a Star Tribune poll found that nine out of 10 Minnesotans support criminal background checks on all private firearm purchases. Support among Minnesotans is broad as well as deep and crosses political, urban and rural, and gun owner and non-owner lines. Despite this support, Senate Republican leadership have refused to give the bills a hearing.

The House has the bills moving through the committee process. Gun violence prevention measure are likely to be a part of end of session negotiations. (SF 436, SF 434)

Equal rights amendment

A bill introduced in the Senate this year would put a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2020 that would add gender equality to Minnesota’s constitution.

Equal rights for women is a nonpartisan issue that transcends politics, age, geography, and gender. Advocate argue that adding gender equality to the state constitution would send a clear and strong message to all Americans that women’s equality is a fundamental human right.

The bill passed the House, but Senate Republicans have refused to give the bill a hearing.

(SF 200)

Restore the vote

Minnesotans convicted of a felony lose the right to vote, even after they’ve re-entered the community or they never served time in incarceration. Only once Minnesotans are “off paper,” having completed their probation or parole sentence, are their rights restored. 47,000 Minnesotans are disenfranchised as a result.

Since 1974, the percentage of Minnesotans disenfranchised as a result of a criminal conviction has increased by 400%. Disenfranchising Minnesotans also disproportionately affects African-Americans and American Indians. Research also shows that children who have parents that vote are more likely to vote themselves. Restoring the vote not only helps Minnesotans now but engages the next generation and helps them become voters as well.

Fourteen states and the District of Columbia restore voting rights when incarceration ends. Restoring the vote allows Minnesotans to have a stake in their community and a voice in who represents them and makes decisions that directly affect their life. It gives Minnesotans a greater ability to become full members of the state’s society and economy and reduces recidivism.

Restore the vote legislation was introduced this session but has not received a hearing. The language is moving forward in the House and may end up in a House omnibus bill. (SF 856)

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