Energy Policy Advocates v. Ellison

Because of the exigencies of the biennial budgeting business, lawmakers at the Minnesota Capitol did nothing in 2023 to curb the effects of this disturbing September 2022 Minnesota Supreme Court opinion. We plan to push hard for a legislative fix next year.

The suit, Energy Policy Advocates v. Ellison, was brought by a conservative group trying to glean information about some controversial, externally funded hires inside the AG Keith Ellison’s office. The group lost, in a ruling labeled “Orwellian” by its lead dissenter, Supreme Court Associate Justice Paul Thissen.

We agree with his assessment. It appears to broaden the definition of “individual” in the Minnesota Data Practices Act (DPA) to encompass the AG’s entire office.

That’s important because the law specifies that most information produced by state agencies is public. But the DPA carves out protections for information that reveals private details about individuals—driver’s license numbers, home addresses, medical conditions and the like—designating that data as private, or, in the statute’s parlance, “non-public.”

The Supreme Court decision now extends those individual privacy protections to the whole of the state’s top law enforcement agency.

“Why would the Legislature have used the word ‘individuals’ if it meant for [DPA] Section 13.65 to cover data that was not on individuals?” Justice Thissen wrote in his dissent. “Only a lawyer could take delight in pondering that question and reaching the result the court reaches today; other Minnesotans will be scratching their heads.”

They will also be rightly concerned about the ruling’s impact: The AG can now refuse public data requests under the theory that they involve protected information about an ”individual,” not a government entity that is required to disclose public data.

We agree with Justice Thissen that, as a logical leap, the court bounded a bridge too far. Corrective legislation is urgently needed and Rep. Harry Niska, R-Ramsey, proposed such a fix as an omnibus bill amendment late last session. For strategic reasons, it was withdrawn, but we will push hard to revive the effort in 2024.