Red Wing, Minn.—For the past five years, an alliance of Red Wing, Minn., tenants and landlords have fought against their city’s unconstitutional rental inspection ordinance. And for as long, the state courts have left unresolved their constitutional challenges to the law, forcing them to fight repeated inspection warrants year after year. But that may finally change as the Minnesota Supreme Court prepares to hear their case. This week, the landlords and tenants filed their principal brief with the state supreme court in a case expected to be argued in May or early June. (For a copy of the brief, visit: http://www.ij.org/RedWingOpeningBrief.pdf.)
Many cities across Minnesota—and most in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, including Minneapolis and St. Paul—have ordinances similar to the one being challenged in this case, which arises out of Red Wing. This case will determine when tenants and landlords can raise their legal objections to such an ordinance. Can they have a court rule on its constitutionality once it is being enforced, or must they wait to be searched and have their privacy invaded before being allowed to sue?
“Throughout this battle, the city of Red Wing has imposed huge costs and inconveniences on our clients, and this has been allowed to happen in large part because the courts have refused to consider the heart of this case—the constitutionality of Red Wing’s rental inspection ordinance,” said Jason Adkins, a staff attorney with the Institute for Justice Minnesota Chapter, which represents the landlords and tenants in this legal fight. “For the past five years, our clients have had to worry about violations of their privacy and property rights, have had to spend hours reviewing the ordinance and seeking legal counsel, and have spent countless hours defeating three illegal warrant applications. They have suffered the stress and anxiety of a needlessly protracted legal battle. The situation is so stressful and intimidating that some of our landlord-clients have even considered selling their rental properties rather than have to continue dealing with these government-imposed headaches.”
“It is time for the courts to once and for all end Red Wing’s abuse,” said IJ Senior Attorney Dana Berliner. “These tenants and landlords have been dragged into court three times to defend themselves against search warrant applications brought by the city. The tenants and landlords believe the rental inspection ordinance is blatantly unconstitutional and that the city is not allowed to even apply for search warrants in the first place. Yet so far, every court has avoided the issue and refused to decide whether the law passes constitutional muster.”
“The courts want the tenants and landlords to just keep going to court to defend themselves, every year if necessary, until a warrant is actually granted (if it ever is). No one should have to go through such an ordeal, particularly because there is a state law—the Minnesota Declaratory Judgment Act—designed to let people find out if state and local laws are constitutional,” Berliner said.
Adkins concluded, “If the court rules that our clients cannot raise their claims in court even after all this, it will profoundly chill the ability of other parties subject to abusive government action to seek relief in court. We are hopeful that the court will rule in a clear manner that when the government begins enforcing a law against you, you can challenge it in court. It is a simple rule that will ensure Minnesota courts remain an indispensable protection against unconstitutional government action.”