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Federal judge held Minnesota’s sexually violent person commitment law is unconstitutional; 8th Circuit reverses

Kevin Scott Karsjens v. Lucinda Jesson, 109 F. Supp. 3d 1139 (D. Minn. 2015), reversedKarsjens v. Piper, 845 F.3d 394 (8th Cir. 2017).

After a lengthy trial in this class-action lawsuit brought by persons committed under Minnesota’s sexually violent person law, a federal district judge concluded that Minnesota’s sexually violent person commitment law does not pass constitutional scrutiny. The 8th Circuit reverses, holding the district court applied the wrong standards of scrutiny to the Minnesota law and that under the correct standards the statute passes muster.

The district court held that:

…. The overwhelming evidence at trial established that Minnesota’s civil commitment scheme is a punitive system that segregates and indefinitely detains a class of potentially dangerous individuals without the safeguards of the criminal justice system.

The stark reality is that there is something very wrong with this state’s method of dealing with sex offenders in a program that has never fully discharged anyone committed to its detention facilities in Moose Lake and St. Peter since its inception in 1994. The number of committed individuals at these facilities keeps growing, with a current count of approximately 714 committed individuals and a projection of 1,215 committed individuals by 2022. In light of the structure of the MSOP [Minnesota Sex Offender Program] and the history of its operation, no one has any realistic hope of ever getting out of this “civil” detention. Instead, it is undisputed that there are committed individuals who meet the criteria for reduction in custody or who no longer meet the criteria for commitment who continue to be confined at the MSOP. (District court slip op. at 4).

The district court’s main legal conclusions (recapitulated by the court itself at pp. 66-67 of its opinion) were:

• For purposes of assessing the plaintiffs’ substantive due process claim that the statute is facially unconstitutional, the court concludes that strict scrutiny applies. (Conclusion of Law ¶¶12-13 (Slip op. at 53-54)).

• The statute doesn’t survive strict scrutiny because the state has failed to demonstrate that it is narrowly tailored to achieve its compelling interests. (Conclusions of Law ¶¶16-25 (Slip op. at 55-59)).

• The statute is unconstitutional as applied because the state applies the statute to the committed persons in a manner that results in the plaintiffs being confined to the MSOP beyond such a time as they either meet the statutory reduction in custody criteria or no longer satisfy the constitutional threshold for continued commitment. (Conclusions of Law ¶¶29-36 (Slip op. at 60-65)).

The court of appeals says the district court was wrong to apply strict scrutiny to any of the constitutional claims. First, as to the petitioner’s facial due process claims, the court of appeals holds that even though civil commitment is a significant deprivation of liberty, “[w]hen considering the due process implications of a civil commitment case, the Supreme Court stated ‘[a]t the least, due process requires that the nature and duration of commitment bear some reasonable relation to the purpose for which the individual is committed.’ Jackson v. Indiana, 406 U.S. 715, 738 (1972) (emphasis added).” 845 F.3d at 407. Under this standard the Minnesota statute is constitutional because it’s rationally related to the state’s legitimate interests:

…. The district court expressed concerns about the lack of periodic risk assessments, the availability of less restrictive alternatives, and the processes for seeking a custody reduction or a release. [The statute] provides “proper procedures and evidentiary standards” for a committed person to petition for a reduction in his custody or his release from confinement. See [Kansas v.Hendricks, 521 U.S. [346,] 357 [(1997)]. Any committed person can file a petition for reduction in custody. …. The petition is considered by a special review board consisting of experts in mental illness and at least one attorney. …. That panel conducts a hearing and issues a report with recommendations to a judicial appeal panel consisting of Minnesota district judges appointed to the judicial appeal panel by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. …. Through this process, the committed person “has the right to be represented by counsel” and the court “shall appoint a qualified attorney to represent the committed person if neither the committed person nor other provide counsel.” …. Appeal of the decision of the special judicial panel may be taken the Minnesota Court of Appeals. …. Finally, a committed person is entitled to initiate a new petition six months after the prior petition is concluded. …. 845 F.3d at 409-10.

Regarding the petitioner’s as-applied due process claims, the court of appeals holds the petitioners must prove both that the state defendants’ conduct was conscience-shocking, and that the state defendants violated one or more fundamental rights that are deeply rooted in history and tradition “and implicit in the concept of ordered liberty, such that neither liberty nor justice would exist if they were sacrificed.” 845 F.3d at 408, quoting Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702, 720–21 (1997). The district court incorrectly allowed the petitioner to prevail by proving only that the acts violated a fundamental liberty, and the record doesn’t support the conclusion that the state actors’ conduct was conscience-shocking. 845 F.3d at 410-11.

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