Ex-Supreme Court chief tapped to oversee sex offender case

Eric Magnuson
Former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson was appointed Thursday as a special master in a federal court case determining potential changes to the Minnesota's sex offender treatment program. Here, Magnuson worked to select a precinct name as part of a review during a manual election recount in 2008.
Jim Mone | AP 2008

Updated: 5:40 p.m. | Posted: 12:35 p.m.

Former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson was appointed Thursday to help facilitate potential changes to the state's civil commitment program for sex offenders, which was ruled unconstitutional last month.

Magnuson, who will be the special master, is well-versed on issues surrounding the Minnesota Sex Offender Program: He was chairman of a task force that recommended an overhaul to the program in 2013, and warned lawmakers back then that if they failed to act, they risked having the program dismantled by the federal court.

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Last month, U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank gave the state's political leaders another chance to proposed solutions for the program, which keeps sex offenders locked up indefinitely after they complete their prison sentences. He also made it clear that if changes aren't made, he will impose his own, including possibly closing secure facilities at St. Peter and Moose Lake.

Frank issued a written order Thursday, saying that a special master is necessary to coordinate the case going forward and "to accommodate the public interest in achieving prompt and just solutions to the serious constitutional problems identified by the Court."

Magnuson will be authorized to oversee changes imposed by the court, Frank said. He also said Magnuson agreed to serve as special master free of charge, and that the court views the role as nonadversarial," assuming both parties will cooperate with Magnuson.

Magnuson did not immediately return a message seeking comment Thursday.

Dan Gustafson, an attorney for the residents, said Magnuson will be involved in helping all parties come up with and facilitate appropriate fixes. Frank told political leaders, including Gov. Mark Dayton, to come to a conference Aug. 10 to begin coming up with solutions.

The governor planned to leave Minnesota a day earlier to lead a trade delegation to Mexico, but has rearranged his schedule in order to attend, spokesman Linden Zakula said in a statement.

Gustafson said Magnuson is a good choice as special master.

"The problems and the fixes have been well known in the state of Minnesota for many years," Gustafson said. "He'll help facilitate people. He'll help find a way to get those changes made."

It's not unusual for a judge to appoint a special master during this phase of a class-action lawsuit, according to Eric Janus, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law who also served on the task force.

"Justice Magnuson was appointed to chair the task force in part because he has the stature and experience to take a close and careful look at this situation," Janus said. "The experience he had ... would actually be really valuable background for this."

Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson, who appointed Magnuson to lead the task force in 2012, said in a statement that she has great respect for him and his "expertise in this area will help us look forward."