Lawyers argue over unsealing Ellison divorce records

Keith Ellison takes questions from reporters.
Keith Ellison takes questions from reporters while canvassing in north Minneapolis in August. A Hennepin County court official will decide no later than Friday whether records in Ellison's 2012 divorce should remain sealed or be opened to the public.
Tim Pugmire | MPR News

Updated: 2:37 p.m. | Posted: 2:13 p.m.

A Hennepin County court official will decide no later than Friday whether records in DFL Rep. Keith Ellison's 2012 divorce should remain sealed or be opened to the public amid a heated race for Minnesota attorney general.

Lawyers for the Star Tribune and Alpha News, a conservative online news site, argued in court on Tuesday that it was a matter of public interest to open the records of Ellison's divorce from Kim Ellison.

Ellison, the Democratic nominee for attorney general, has been accused of a single incident of domestic abuse by his ex-girlfriend, Karen Monahan. Ellison denies the allegation.

"You have to look at current events," said Star Tribune attorney Leita Walker. "There's a very strong public interest in understanding what's in his court file."

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Carla Kjellberg, Ellison's attorney, said she agrees that any mention of domestic abuse in the divorce file would be relevant in the context of the campaign. She has asked the judge to review the file for any such allegation but said the rest of the file should remain sealed.

Kjellberg argued it's a matter of privacy and safety for both Ellison, the first Muslim member of Congress, and his ex-wife, who is a member of the Minneapolis Board of Education.

"Him being the first Muslim member of Congress has resulted in death threats, resulted in national news and the increased web presence of just nasty, untruthful things," Kjellberg said.

Walker said that becoming a public official is "voluntary," and there's no reason to believe unsealing a year-old divorce file will increase risks to his or his ex-wife's safety.

The Star Tribune has pushed to unseal similar records, including divorce records from Prince's second marriage. Divorce records are typically public, but judges sometimes agree to seal the documents in both sides agree.

The file wasn't sealed until nearly a year after the divorce. Kjellberg said there are things in the file related to Kim Ellison subsequent to the divorce that should remain private.

"There wasn't any real information in there. As soon as there was, we asked the court to recognize the privacy rights and the way this could be misused and the court granted that motion," she said.

In previous statements, Kim Ellison said her ex-husband never abused her, before, during or after their marriage.

Early voting is already underway for the Nov. 6 election. Ellison is being challenged by Republican Doug Wardlow, and several polls show the race is close.

Hennepin County Family Referee Jason Hutchison noted he would typically have 90 days to decide on a case like this, but he acknowledged the timing is tricky.

"We all see the elephant in the middle of the room here," he said.

He said he will rule no later than noon on Friday but did not forecast which way he was leaning in the case.