Affirmative Action – As it Is


The Law Librarian originally had other blogging plans for this week when the Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action in the case of Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action hit the news.  In a 6-2 ruling (with 5 separate opinions), the Court upheld a Michigan constitutional amendment that bans affirmative action in admissions to the state’s public universities.  In the main opinion, Justice Kennedy wrote there was no reason for judicial intervention in state decisions that do not target minority groups.  This decision basically gives the green light to other states seeking to enact measures banning the use of race in admissions or to consider race-neutral alternatives to ensure diversity.  Justice Sotomayor wrote a 58-page dissenting opinion, accusing her colleagues of attempting to “wish away” evidence of the nation’s racial inequality.  Indeed, states that forbid affirmative action in higher education have seen significant drops in the enrollment of black and Hispanic students in their most selective schools.

Affirmative action has been a subject of vigorous debate for decades and will likely continue to be, especially given the fractured nature of this Court decision.  Questions for discourse remain, of course.  For instance, is race-based affirmative action the best policy to broaden access to education, or should it be based on something more race-neutral (like economic means)?  Is race-based affirmative action in education only to benefit the minority students so admitted, or is it also needed for the educational experience of the (typically white) student body majority?  Moreover, how can we expect a decision like this to ultimately play out in Minnesota?


The James J. Hill Library as captured by Michael Boeckmann (Star Tribune)

The James J. Hill Library as captured by Michael Boeckmann

This week the James J. Hill Library  was named the greatest historical treasure among the nation’s libraries in Gale’s nationwide photo contest.  (Kudos  go to local photographer Michael Boeckmann for this award-winning photograph, which appeard in the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press.)  The Hill Library is roughly one block up the street from the Ramsey County Courthouse, and is a must-see stop for downtown visitors making the historical architectural tour.  Built in response to Hill’s preference that celebratory money be spent on a “research center” in leiu of a grand celebration to commemorate the opening of his Great Northern Railway, it was dedicated in 1921.    Don’t overlook the resources of the Hill Library for assistance with your business research.  With access to extensive database resources through EBSCO,  “[t]he Hill’s Business Librarians can assist businesses, freelancers, entrepreneurs and nonprofits in finding information that will be useful in opening a new store, finding new clients and delivering new products or services.”  Read more about the James J. Hill Library and its services here, or check out their excellent blog.

This week is also when libraries everywhere are recognizing National Library Week.  Officially sponsored by the American Library Association (ALA), it is a time to celebrate the contributions of libraries and librarians and to promote library use and support.  The Ramsey County Law Library is recognizing National Library Week from Monday through Friday this week.  Visitors to the library can help themselves to a free pocket Constitution. This year’s theme is “Lives Change at Your Library.” 


Checking out Charities

file000500651100[1]Nowadays we are all pretty wary as to which businesses and individuals we choose to trust.  An understandable outlook in a time of fraud and identity theft, we may not have the same high standards when it comes to nonprofits. After all, it’s counterintuitive to our principles that an organization purporting to exist for a good cause would be up to anything other than good causes.  Unfortunately, not every so-called nonprofit has such good intentions.  Or it may have the best intentions, but also faulty administration and a poor track record to match.  Or it may generally do good work, but have cracks in its system that lead to performance problems and allow funds to leak out. 

The Law Librarian is always sad to hear people’s experiences with area organizations wherein they didn’t get the help they hoped for. If you have had a bad encounter with a nonprofit organization (or what you were led to believe was a nonprofit), you may want to contact the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits (MCN) to let them know.  If you think your rights as a consumer have been violated by a nonprofit, consider filing a complaint with the Minnesota Attorney General.  Going forward, how can a person investigate a nonprofit’s reputation before dealing with them?  According to this New York Times article,you may want to look at investigative resources like Charity Navigator and Guidestar.  And the Better Business Bureau has been shining a light on shady operations for years.   

If you regularly work with Minnesota nonprofits, be aware of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits’ featured publication, Principles & Practices for Nonprofit Excellence .  They also publish the 2014 Minnesota Grants Directory if your nonprofit is in need of funding assistance.   Finally, if you are looking to make a career change and think you would like to work in a nonprofit setting, see their excellent job board link.


The Hole Situation


Readers, did you get out of the house to enjoy the beautiful weather we experienced last Sunday?  Did you perhaps go for a drive in the country?  Or did you bring out your bicycle or motorcycle for the first ride of the season?  Or maybe you considered or even attempted one of these activities, but quickly changed your plans when you saw how many new potholes Minnesota streets and highways picked up over the winter.    Minnesota pothole repair promises to be an extra-large project this year, which is why a legislative committee recently added $15 million into a transportation funding bill to pay for work.   St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman estimates that it will cost $70 million to repair the decayed streets of St. Paul alone.

Short of being extra-careful, there is little one can do about potholes in the immediate future until road crews can get to work on them.  Want to make sure a particular pothole gets its due attention?  There is online reporting information specifically for Minnesota, Ramsey County, and St. Paul potholes.  Have you suffered loss or injury due to a pothole that you feel warrants a tort action against the State?  The Minnesota Department of Transportation offers some information about the Minnesota Tort Claims Act.  For tort actions against municipalities, start by reading Minnesota Statute §466.


Understanding-the-ADA-Goren[1]Most of us fortunate enough to live without the challenge of a disability may be unaware of what is contained in the Americans with Disabilities Act (42 U.S. Code § 12101 – 12103) and how it applies to a disabled person’s life of work, travel, and education.  Unless their practice specifically addresses it, attorneys are apt to be similarly unaware.  ADA consultant William Goren claims he wrote Understanding the Americans with Disabilities Act (ABA 2013) specifically to address what he considered to be the shortage of legal materials  devoted to making the ADA understandable.  The new Fourth Edition  goes into some of the new complexities of recent disability claims.    This book includes new expanded topics, including discussion of how ADA relates to sports and the Rehabilitation Act, use of negligence action as an alternative legal remedy, and improved checklists and forms.  It also offers expanded guidance on legal remedies and determining whether or not one has legal standing.

People wanting to file their own ADA claim with the Department of Justice can do so directly at the ADA website.  More legal information to assist those with disabilities is available at or at For job accommodation questions related to the ADA, see, a service of the Office of Disability Employment Policy, U.S. Department of Labor.


Capital Punishment – Law and Legacy

file000842763397The Law Librarian would be amiss in not shining some light on St. Paul attorney Deborah Ellis, who was visible in last week’s legal news for leading a legal team whose efforts brought about the overturn of the 30 year-old conviction of Louisiana death row inmate Glenn Ford. Until last week, Ford was on death row following his 1983 conviction for the murder of Isadore Rozeman. Ford always maintained his innocence, and recently discovered evidence finally showed that Ford was not in the place prosecutors previously convinced jurors he was on the night Rozeman was murdered. This fresh evidence culminated in Caddo Parrish District prosecutors requesting that the court set aside Ford’s first-degree murder conviction and death sentence, which it did. Besides these news sources, also see this blog entry from the Innocence Project.

Minnesota abolished its own death penalty in 1911, but its brief run was detailed, diverse, and divisive. There was the 1860 hanging of Ann Bilansky following her conviction for poisoning her husband to death. (Governor Ramsey expressed grave doubts as to her guilt but ultimately allowed the execution to carry out as planned.) Then there was the mass hanging at Mankato of 38 Dakota men for what authorities believed was role in the 1862 Dakota uprising. (Granted, this was a federal and not a state-ordered execution.) The swan’s song probably started to play with the 1906 execution of William Williams, whose murder of Johnny Keller and his mother was supposedly motivated by a gay love affair gone bad. His hanging was botched by miscalculation of rope length, which allowed his live body to forcibly hit the floor when the trap door was released. The rope had to be pulled up and held for over fourteen minutes before Williams was pronounced dead. Word of these technical difficulties leaked to the newspapers, and public outrage predictably followed. The Williams debacle was Minnesota’s last execution before the death penalty was finally abolished in 1911. These and other details are presented in Legacy of Violence: Lynch Mobs and Executions in Minnesota (University of Minnesota Press, 2003) by former Minneapolis Attorney John D. Bessler, now an associate professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

It will be interesting to see if the Louisiana Legislature does anything with their own death penalty statute following the highly-publicized justice debacle of Glenn Ford.


The Need for Greater Fire Safety



As our severe winter starts to wind down, it’s a good time to step back and take note of how critically important a subject like residential fire safety really is.  Unfortunately, we have seen a rash of  residential fire disasters in the area of late, such as here, here, and here.  Plus, this tragic Minneapolis occurrence cannot be ignored.  Who could forget this holiday headliner?  This other Minneapolis disaster from a few years ago only just now came to settlement.  A recent article in the Minnesota Lawyer quoted a local attorney as stating that there is a lack of fire safety education resources for residential landlords. 

That said, what can people do to prevent residential fires such as these?  Don’t underestimate the importance of good working smoke alarms, as people often do.  You may ask the St. Paul Fire Department for a free smoke detector, or they will make a house call to test your existing one.  If you are a tenant living in St. Paul and have a situation that you think warrants inspection, you may contact the City Dept. of Safety and Inspections at (651) 266-8989.  If you a landlord of a single-family rental or duplex in St. Paul and don’t live on the premises, you are required to register your property.  More information is available at the City Dept. of Safety and Inspections website.  Additionally, if you are a landlord or attorney practicing in housing law, you may want to purchase your own copy of the Minnesota State Fire Code

Finally, Ramsey County landlords and tenants are both welcome to attend our Housing and Conciliation Court Clinic where they can present their questions to a volunteer attorney.




Most likely we will see the Minnesota  State Legislature change the statute criminalizing nonpayment of child support this session, following a recent opinion from the Minnesota Supreme Court.  In the case of State v. Nelson (A12-0071), the defendant owed $83,470 for 11 years of child support for his two children.  He was charged under Minnesota Statute 609.375, which criminalizes a parent’s failure to provide “care and support” to their children. After an extensive examination of the language of the statute, the high court concluded that the words “care” and “support” referred to separate obligations, and ruled in a 4-3 decision that Nelson could not be punished because there is no proof he didn’t otherwise “care” for them. So at least according to the dissenting opinion, Minnesota thus becomes the only state that does not hold deadbeat parents criminally accountable for unpaid child support (at least until the language of this law can be reworded).

This case opens the door to wider discussion of what legal obligations parents have toward their children.  The Minnesota Child Support Guidelines contain provisions for a “parenting time deduction” in monies owed, but would Mr. Nelson have found himself dragged into court had he simply kept up on those 11 years of checks and had otherwise ignored his children?  Understandably, the State has a legitimate interest in ensuring that noncustodial parents make timely and consistent child support payments. And any noncustodial parent who cannot afford their monetary child support obligations would be wise to get their support order changed rather than risk subjecting themselves to criminal charges, garnishments, or just a massive debt pile-up.  (This change can be done with assistance from the Ramsey County Family Court Self-Help Center.)  But has the law typically regarded non-custodial parents (which tend to be fathers) as mere checkbooks in their children’s lives?  Consider also that the child support statute (Minn. Stat. 518Aallows the state to suspend drivers’ and occupational licenses of noncustodial parents in arrears, which impacts a person’s employment prospects which are key to the financial support their kids (not to mention their ability to “care” for them in the form of driving them places).  A provocative blog entry on this subject appeared on the website of the National Parents Organization.

 Expect the Legislature to grapple with these ideas in the months ahead, and the wording of the statute to change.  Meanwhile, feel free to visit the Minnesota Child Support Guidelines website to see how the system operates.


Minnesota Sex Offender Program – Constitutional?

DSC_0290 The Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) is currently the hot topic in Minnesota legal news.  The case of Karsjens v. Jesson  (No. 11-3659, 2014 WL  667971) was recently brought in the U.S. District Court by fourteen plaintiffs currently held in the program.  MSOP participants (or detainees?) are convicted sex offenders who have completed their sentences, but have been civilly committed into the program.  A core tenant of the program is the “treatment” component, which is purportedly the key to restoring the participants’ freedom and reintegrating them back into society.  The Karsjens plaintiffs claim that the treatment and the program itself are simply a cover for a “throw away the key” policy aimed at sex offenders. And since the program started in 1993, only one out of nearly 700 sex offenders has been discharged.  Their lawsuit alleges that being civilly committed to the treatment program is equivalent to a lifetime of prison-esque incarceration.

The legitimate desire to protect the public by confining convicted sex offenders is completely understandable, but also raises fair constitutional questions about the legitimacy of confining individuals when they are no longer under the jurisdiction of the penal system.  This constitutional conundrum is aptly explained in this Star Tribune editorial.  And obviously, reforming a program to allow for at least the potential release of convicted sex offenders bears an unmistakable political toxicity that makes legislators loath to touch it.  Nonetheless, in his Order declining to dismiss the case, Judge Donovan Frank has cued the Minnesota Legislature to not only touch but to repair this clearly broken system, lest the Court be forced to intervene. (2014 WL  667971 at  19)

 41RXC55639L[1]An interesting book that looks at the policy issue of treating/containing sex offenders is Failure to Protect:  America’s Sexual Predator Laws and the Rise of the Preventive State (Cornell University Press) by Eric S. Janus.  The author, currently the Dean of William Mitchell College of Law, makes several assertions, including that we spend much money for the punitive containment of sex offenders in reaction to horrific headliner incidents and tend to ignore workable (and less expensive) treatment options for more mundane sex offenders.



Spare the News and Spoil the Blog

file7491250647364A Kansas legislator wants to give teachers and caregivers greater leeway in the physical discipline of children. Current Kansas law allows spanking without leaving marks, but her proposed bill would allow up to 10 strikes of the hand and smacks hard enough to leave redness and bruising. Unsurprisingly, the very idea of physically inflicting red marks on a child has some folks…well, seeing red.    This proposed bill would allow for such punishment of an 18-year old that is still in high school.  (So theoretically, Little Johnny could vote in next fall’s midterm elections, but still get a whoopin’ at school the next day.)  The bill would also allow a parent or caregiver to give authority to school personnel to apply corporate punishment to their child.  (An interesting predicament for a teacher, if some of the kids in the class could be spanked and some could not.)  It isn’t looking like this bill will go far, but it has certainly generated talk and controversy

The United States Supreme Court ruled in Ingraham v. Wright 430 U.S. (651 (1977) that the Eight Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment did not apply to corporal punishment in schools, and that this was an area of state authority.  Kansas is thus an exception to the 31 states that do not allow corporal punishment in schools.  A child abuse expert at a nearby hospital stated that spanking is not only less effective than other disciplinary tactics, but is psychologically damaging as well.  To the contrary there is always a choir of comments from those insisting they were spanked as a child and turned out “just fine.”  (Of course, whether or not someone is “just fine” is a subjective question and beyond the scope of this blog.)  Much more information can be found about this subject here.

Minnesota does not allow corporal punishment in schools, but local experts of both Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools suggest that the education system need better structure and/or discipline tactics than those currently employed.  See the Minnesota Department of Education for specific information regarding discipline in Minnesota schools.