No Exit, II

Monday's U.S. Supreme Court Ruling on the Confinement of Sex Offenders Leaves Questions Unanswered, Including the Fate of Minnesota's Sexual Psychopath Laws.

MONDAY'S 5-4 DECISION by the U.S. Supreme Court upholding Kansas's sexual-predator law certainly strengthened the legal standing of two Minnesota laws that have resulted in the commitment of 109 sex offenders to state mental hospitals after their prison terms have expired. States may lock these individuals up because the confinement is defined as medical treatment, the court agreed. But local defense attorneys claim that aspects of the Minnesota laws--provisions dealing with length of confinement and whether sex offenders can control their actions--are unresolved and need to be determined on their own merits by the nation's highest court.

"Both Justice Clarence Thomas [who wrote the decision] and the dissenting opinion [by Justice David Breyer] focused on the lack of power to control one's actions--the precise element missing in [Minnesota's 1994] sexually dangerous persons act," says Eric Janus, the attorney for a sex offender whose challenge to the 1994 law is still on the Supreme Court docket. "We know states can commit a person who can't control himself. But can they commit someone who can? That's the hard question the Supreme Court hasn't answered yet." But what the court did rule on Monday makes the release of Minnesota offenders much more problematic. All but one of the nine justices agreed that in addition to those with mental illnesses, offenders with "mental abnormalities" or "personality disorders" could be confined under the Kansas law. One of the ways Minnesota skirts this issue is to confine offenders under broad-based diagnoses such as anti-social personality disorder. The dissenting justices were most troubled by Kansas's lack of treatment for offenders, arguing that the statute is more punitive than therapeutic. By contrast, Minnesota's sex-offender laws are treatment-oriented.

In light of the Kansas decision, both Janus and John Kirwin of the Minnesota attorney general's office believe that the U.S. Supreme Court will send the Minnesota challenge back to the state Supreme Court for review, meaning it will be months before the case makes its way back to the high court--if it gets there at all.

BORED WITH MEETINGS

THE MINNEAPOLIS SCHOOL Board seems to have figured out that nasty open-meeting thing pretty well. In the past month, the board made its two most important decisions of the year--letting Superintendent Peter Hutchinson go and asking St. Louis Park super Carol Johnson to take the job--without holding a single public meeting until the debate was pretty well over. And while politicians used to at least fake devotion to sunshine statutes, this time board members openly acknowledged using small-group meetings, phone conversations, and the like to hash things out far from the spotlight.

Not that this comes as a surprise. Politicians never liked the open-meeting law, especially when it comes to hiring top officials. But while it's at least conceivable why the board didn't publicize its conversations with Johnson--who is, after all, being raided from another prominent job--it's hard to see why the rest of us didn't deserve to know how the "mutually-agreed separation" from Hutchinson came about.

FARE FIGHT

PERHAPS THE INITIAL chaos that accompanied Northwest Airlines' merger with Republic just over 10 years ago was a presage to future problems. Last week, a class-action lawsuit was filed against the company in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis requesting redress to customers whom plaintiffs claim the airline has overcharged, and claiming the 1986 merger led to federal antitrust law violations. The suit cites a federal study that found "a substantial lessening of competition and substantially higher fares and reductions in output" following the acquisition of Republic by Northwest.

Marta Laughlin, a Northwest spokesperson, dismisses the suit as the "ridiculous, baseless" effort of "bottom-feeder attorneys trolling for bucks." She protests that officials long ago satisfied themselves that there were no outstanding issues over Northwest's practices. However, a look at spending by Northwest's political action committee might shed some light on why lawmakers have been so amenable to toeing the company line. Money donated by Northwest to federal candidates and spent by company lobbyists during the first half of 1996 alone totaled $1.5 million, making the airline one of the top federal political donors, outspending even such federal defense contractors as McDonnell-Douglas.>

PUBLIC DOMAIN

Looking for a used pet? Read on (from the NIH Guide, Vol. 26, No. 17):

INTRODUCTION

The United States Air Force intends to divest its interests in the primate research complex (PRC) located at Holloman AFB, N.M., and the Air Force-owned chimpanzees located at or managed from the PRC. The Air Force seeks nonbinding letters of interest on the opportunity...

DESCRIPTION OF OPPORTUNITY

Pursuant to Section 2842 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1997, Public Law 104-201, the Secretary of the Air Force may dispose of all right, title, and interest of the United States in and to the PRC at Holloman Air Force Base.... The Air Force intends to achieve this divestment by disposing of its interests in some or all of the resources of the PRC and all of the Air Force-owned chimpanzees as described below:

1. The Air Force intends to transfer title in all Air Force-owned chimpanzees (approximately 145) that are managed from or housed at the PRC, subject to current lease agreement, to one or more recipients.
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