The Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday agreed to take up a case that could toss a Minneapolis policing proposal from the November election, just two days before early voting is set to begin.
The measure clearing the way for Minneapolis to replace its Police Department with a new agency has become the dominant issue in the first city races since George Floyd was killed by police. With early voting set to begin Friday, justices are facing intense pressure to act with unusual speed.
In a flurry of legal filings submitted by the high court's 5 p.m. deadline, the city of Minneapolis and Yes 4 Minneapolis, the political committee that wrote the proposal, argued state law requires the question to come before voters this fall.
"Striking down ballot question after ballot question while acknowledging the lack of court authority to prescribe a certain form [of question] runs the risk now of delaying the people of Minneapolis from deciding whether to amend their own governing charter, despite following the required process," wrote Minneapolis Assistant City Attorney Ivan Ludmer. The city's wording has been rejected by a judge three times now.
Three Minneapolis residents whose lawsuit prompted the latest court arguments asked the justices to block officials from using the latest ballot language. The three — businessman Bruce Dachis, nonprofit CEO Sondra Samuels and former City Council Member Don Samuels — also asked the Supreme Court to "provide a clear path for the proposed Charter amendment to be put to a vote by the people of Minneapolis."
"[They] have always wanted the people of Minneapolis to vote on this issue, and they continue to believe that the people's voices need to be heard," wrote attorney Joe Anthony. "But a vote cast on a ballot question that is vague, misleading, and fails to identify the 'essential purpose' of a Charter amendment robs the voter of their agency to make meaningful decisions about their City, community, and personal safety."
After scrambling to make their down-to-the-wire arguments, attorneys anxiously awaited the justices' decision on Wednesday evening.
Earlier in the day, both Minneapolis and Yes 4 Minneapolis fired off emergency appeals asking the state's high court to intervene.
They argued that voters deserved to weigh in on a key issue this fall and that officials need clarity on how to write neutral ballot questions to avoid a repeat of the legal battles that have dogged Minneapolis for more than a month now.
"The questions in this case must be answered to ensure the integrity of our State's elections," wrote Terrance W. Moore, an attorney for Yes 4 Minneapolis.
The requests came one day after Hennepin County Judge Jamie Anderson blocked elections officials from using the ballot question the city had crafted and blocked them from counting votes on the question.
The measure changes the Minneapolis charter by removing the requirement to keep a police department with a minimum number of officers. It then requires the city to create a new agency providing "a comprehensive public health approach to safety."
Lawyers on all sides of the debate have argued vehemently over how to interpret those charter changes and present it to voters in a neutral way.
On Tuesday, Anderson ruled that the city's latest ballot language was "misleading," adding it "does not ensure that voters are able to understand the essential purpose of the proposed amendment."
In their appeals, the city and Yes 4 Minneapolis urged the Supreme Court to overturn her decision, saying they feared it would open the door for the ballot to become a venue for spreading campaign messages. They also argued that Anderson failed to provide clarity on how she arrived at her legal conclusions.
"The district court … said the question failed to identify the essential purpose of the amendment, without stating what the court perceived to be the essential purpose or what was missing," wrote Ludmer.
In response, attorneys for Dachis and the Samuelses urged the court to uphold Anderson's decision, saying voters would be misled "because it is not possible to understand what the amendment actually does."
"Democracy depends on voters receiving fair notice of what they are being asked to decide," Anthony wrote.
He pitched scenarios for how justices could proceed: instruct city officials to "draft a proper ballot question" and modify deadlines for early voting, or require the city to run a second, special election that could also fall on the same day as the general election (resulting in voters having two ballots).
Blame for any delays
Emotions ran high Wednesday, as people on both sides of the legal fight blamed each other for causing the question to be pushed from the November election — at least for now.
When Judge Anderson struck down the ballot language, the first time was prompted by a legal challenge brought by Yes 4 Minneapolis. The second and third times were in response to requests from Dachis and the Samuelses.
Yes 4 Minneapolis leaders painted those three residents as part of a squad of elite, well-funded opponents who had "stolen" residents' chances to vote on an essential issue.
"It's tragic that the status quo is so afraid of change that they chose to abolish accountability and destroy democracy altogether," said Corenia Smith, the group's campaign manager.
JaNaé Bates, the group's spokesperson, added, "This is the thing that, no matter what side of the issue you are on, you should be righteously upset about."
Lawyers for Dachis and the Samuelses disputed those characterizations and said they are working pro bono. They blamed any delays on the city leaders who were tasked with writing a neutral ballot question.
Police reform has to happen "in participation with police Chief [Medaria] Arradondo and with the police who are not all [Derek] Chauvin," said Sondra Samuels, referring to the officer convicted of murdering Floyd.
Samuels said she and her husband are African Americans who have lived in the city for close to a quarter century, and they fear the proposal is being driven by people who don't share North Siders' experiences with violent crime.
"We have to have the protection for Black people across the city and in north Minneapolis," she said.
Printing ballots and notices
Anderson's order came down as Minneapolis ballots were being printed.
If the high court hasn't ruled by the time early voting begins, Anderson instructed elections workers to give voters a notice that they shouldn't vote on the policing measure and that those votes won't be counted.
In a memo Wednesday, Hennepin County officials, who assist with ballot printing, asked the justices to lift that requirement. If the Supreme Court ultimately reverses Anderson's ruling, some of the earliest voters "will have been disenfranchised" and the results on that ballot question "will be tainted," they argued.
Still, Minneapolis Clerk Casey Carl, who oversees elections, said the city has begun printing notices in case they're needed. The first batch will have 8,000 notices, a number he projected would allow them to get through Monday or Tuesday of next week.
Interest in early and mail-in voting is running high, Carl said. As of Wednesday afternoon, the city had received about 2,800 requests for absentee ballots. In 2017, when the last municipal races were held, they received 3,369 requests during the entire election cycle.
"I think that's an indication that, yes, this is going to be a big turnout year," he said.
Staff Writers Kelly Smith and Faiza Mahamud contributed to this report.