The case concerns a woman known as S.L.H. in court documents, who asked a judge to seal her criminal file from background checks. The courts have that power in their own branch of government.
The question is whether that power extends outside the judiciary to the main source for background checks, the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
In 1992, 20-year-old S.L.H. pleaded guilty to 5th degree drug possession. She fulfilled her probation conditions and the conviction dropped to a misdemeanor.
S.L.H. is now 36, and a single mother of four. She's gone more than 15 years without a conviction; earned a G.E.D., completed more than 90 hours of training to become a Head Start teacher and trained to work as a medical assistant.
In both jobs, potential employers refused to hire her because of her conviction. In cases like this, judges may take the extraordinary step of sealing a conviction from public view. The idea is that allowing rehabilitated persons to get better-paying jobs serves society more than having those records open.
Justice Lori Gildea questioned S.L.H.'s attorney about the limits of sealing such records.
"It strikes me that any time a person asserts, 'Iit would be easier for me to get a job if my criminal conviction could simply go away,' under your rule of law the people of Minnesota would be deprived of information which the Legislature has said in the data practices act is public. What are the bookends around your rule of law?"
S.L.H.'s attorney Kim Ruckdaschel-Haley said the Constitution gives judges an inherent power to decide whose records are sealed and when.
"Your honor, to me the bookends stem on a case by case basis for the district court," she responded.
Ruckdaschel-Haley went on to say that judges in individual cases would balance the public's right to know with the person's unique situation.
The Hennepin County Judge in S.L.H.'s case sealed her records in the court system, but said she didn't have the power to seal them at the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, or BCA. A majority panel of the Court of Appeals agreed.
In a similar case, known as V.A.J., a panel of the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of keeping the records sealed.
Some justices, like Paul Anderson, appeared concerned that allowing judges to seal records outside the court system would step on another branch of government's turf.
"Tell us why you have met that high burden, that you would have us as a separation of government would say, 'We don't care, Legislature, this is so important we are going to trump what you've done?'"
Ruckdaschel-Haley said that courts have authority over the administration of justice. And the adminstration of justice doesn't end at the courthouse door. She said she understood the delicate nature of the separation of powers but there was no rigid line between them.
"There is no absolute, airtight division amongst the branches," said Ruckdaschel-Haley. "The duties may in fact blur, and the court can't provide meaningful relief without recognizing these branches function uniquely together."
The justices appeared to have fewer questions for the state. Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Linda Freyer argued the court would be overstepping its bounds by telling the BCA to seal records.
Freyer added that sealing the BCA's records would not solve the problems faced by people like S.L.H. She said employers are increasingly asking potential workers whether they have convictions, regardless of whether their records are sealed.
The state of Minnesota, for instance, asks those applying for law licenses to list their past brushes with the law, even if an arrest didn't result in a conviction.
"That's why many ... legislators have taken up bills that preclude employers from using certain arrest and conviction data when people are applying for certain jobs, or housing in order to craft a more meaningful remedy," said Freyer.
Chief Justice Russell Anderson did not attend the argument because he retires from the bench in about three weeks. The court says in the event of a 3-3 tie, the Court of Appeals decision in this case would stand, meaning the court could not seal records outside its own branch.