The American Civil Liberties Union warded off a bid to force it to switch attorneys in a case the group brought against an Inver Grove Heights charter school.
The ACLU is suing the Tarek Ibn Ziyad Academy, or TiZA, in federal court, alleging the school blurs the boundary between religion and public education. On Monday, U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank dismissed a motion by the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, or MAS-MN, to disqualify Minneapolis law firm Dorsey & Whitney from representing the ACLU in the case.
In its motion, MAS-MN, the nonprofit organization that leases the school's campus, argued Dorsey attorneys, including former Vice President Walter Mondale, once provided legal advice to the school's executive director and former MAS-MN board member, Asad Zaman.
Dorsey, in turn, cried foul over what the firm perceived as an attempt at stalling 20 months into the case.
Frank found no malice in the motion and no ethical lapse on Dorsey & Whitney's part.
"It's not a difficult decision for me to reach legally," Frank said, after stating the trial has had "one of the most torturous procedural histories" in his experience. "It's difficult to try to help you go from here."
In 2004, Zaman became a fellow at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. Through the fellowship, Zaman met Mondale, the former vice president, senator and Minnesota attorney general, who is also a senior counsel at Dorsey.
A MAS-MN trial memo says Mondale gave Zaman wide-ranging advice, including some involving the organization's structure and its relationship with TiZA.
Meanwhile, the motion says, another Dorsey & Whitney attorney and Humphrey fellow organized a meeting where she and several colleagues discussed with Zamad a plan by MAS-MN to create a Muslim-American chamber of commerce. Though neither Zamad or MAS-MN was ever billed, the group argued, the encounters amounted to an attorney-client relationship and might have given Dorsey & Whitney information the firm can use in the trial.
"If you go to seek advice from an attorney, and you receive advice, you become a client for all purposes," said Ferdinand Peters, who represented MAS-MN.
But Dorsey & Whitney attorney Peter Lancaster dismissed the notion that Zamad in effect became a client of Mondale's.
"Mr. Mondale speaks to a lot of people, and he gives political advice to a lot of people," he said, adding, "I don't think that creates an attorney-client relationship."
The chamber of commerce meeting at most created "the possibility of a prospective relationship," he said.
Frank sided with that take on the relationship between Dorsey & Whitney and MAS-MN, finding no ethical lapses. He also said the major delay disqualifying the firm would have caused did not factor into his decision, though he did express concern about the lengthy trial.
The judge will hear expert witness depositions in coming weeks. The two sides also had a session with a mediator earlier this fall.
"I am thinking of the students," Frank said, "and I don't think time is on their side."
Mila Koumpilova can be reached at 651-228-2171.