DULUTH — The Pete Stauber campaign emails will remain private at least until next week and maybe for good as Judge Stoney Hiljus said he will use the weekend to decide.
“I’m not in a position to make a decision today,” Hiljus said Friday, Oct. 26, in District Court in Duluth. “I think it deserves more research, effort and thought than that.”
Hiljus heard arguments for more than an hour from attorneys for the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and St. Louis County.
The DFL sued the county earlier in the week for the release of correspondence with the National Republican Congressional Committee found in Stauber’s county email account.
Stauber, a county commissioner and retired Duluth police officer, is running for the open seat in the 8th Congressional District against Democrat Joe Radinovich and Independence Party candidate Ray “Skip” Sandman.
The fate of the emails has loomed over the 8th District race for nearly two months. While the court hearing was being conducted, Stauber was in the Twin Cities taking part in a live campaign debate against Radinovich on Minnesota Public Radio.
Attorneys for both sides agreed to expedite the case with the general election coming Nov. 6. Hiljus, of the 10th District Court in Mora, was appointed to the case by the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Friday’s hearing was technically for a temporary restraining order, filed by the DFL along with its lawsuit, with a goal of seeing a rapid release of the emails by the county. Everyone agreed the judge’s ruling next week would be the last judicial act to come ahead of the election. A judge’s order in favor of the DFL would compel the county to release the emails, even if a longer legal process ensued.
The DFL attorney was emphatic that every moment the Stauber emails weren’t made public was harmful to voters.
“There are ballots being cast in this building right now — in this race,” said DFL attorney Christopher Stafford, of the Minneapolis firm Fredrikson and Byron, referring to the period of early voting being conducted now through Nov. 5.
The emails between Stauber and the NRCC were discovered earlier this year during a public records request by the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The contents of 22 emails — including seven more learned about in court Friday — have been kept among the county, Stauber and the NRCC. The county has maintained the emails are private correspondence between a commissioner and an individual. When the story broke in September, the county said it reviewed the emails and that no investigation or further review was warranted.
County Administrator Kevin Gray, also named in the lawsuit, was seated in the back of a crowd of journalists, onlookers, the Radinovich campaign manager and a row of Stauber supporters. The county has said it would not comment on the case while it was being conducted.
The DFL’s case centered around the idea that elected officials can’t expect privacy when using official communications with outside organizations. After all, the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act is about how to access data, Stafford said. Inevitably, there’s going to be an individual at the other end of those emails, he argued, but it’s not the individual’s data being sought.
At one point, Hiljus and the lawyers remarked to one another about not having heard of a case similar to the one in front of them. Such is possibly the case because government officials usually comply with Minnesota Department of Administration opinions — like the one issued in the Stauber case last week.
The state said the Stauber emails were public and that St. Louis County has acted improperly by not releasing the emails.
But St. Louis County continued to hold fast to the emails, and its defense said in court it takes issue with the Department of Administration and its repeated interpretations of a state data practices statute which begins, “Correspondence between individuals and elected officials is private data on individuals.”
“I have been waiting for an opportunity like this for five years,” said Assistant County Attorney Nick Campanario, calling the law plain and “unambiguous,” and describing how he and the county have long differed with similar state opinions — which tend to have the credibility of law without being binding.
At one point, the judge wondered if the Stauber emails would have been risked being made public had he used a personal (or campaign) account. Probably not, he wondered aloud.
Said Campaniero, “I think that’s probably true.”