A federal judge said Friday that he will decide within two weeks whether to unseal court documents that have become a flashpoint in a lawsuit over a metro-area public school's alleged promotion of Islam.
The documents make up a tiny percentage of the records filed in the two years since the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota sued Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TiZA). But in a court hearing Friday, lawyers for the ACLU, TiZA and other parties in the case spent the better part of three hours arguing about whether the records are confidential and how they should be used.
Friday's hearing was a snapshot of what U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank calls a "highly contested and acrimonious" case, in which the ACLU and TiZA have accused each other of trying to spin the facts in the media. ACLU attorneys also say the charter school has failed to produce some documents -- to which TiZA lawyers fire back that court files now run to hundreds of thousands of pages, and the plaintiff's demands are "insatiable."
The ACLU and the state education commissioner, a codefendant in the case, argued that the documents debated Friday are public. TiZA lawyer Mark Azman countered that the ACLU has abused the court's fact-finding process to gather records for litigation that it now wants to "parade" publicly in an attempt to broadcast a distorted picture of the school.
It's unclear exactly what the documents say, but they include several dozen e-mails, meeting minutes and other records from TiZA, its public relations firm and others, according to court records. The ACLU says the data support the organization's claim that TiZA, which has campuses in Inver Grove Heights and Blaine, is "pervasively sectarian."
The disputed records play a key role in a settlement agreement between the ACLU and the education commissioner. As part of the deal, the two parties agreed on a set of facts about the case that they say are backed up, in part, by court documents tagged as confidential by TiZA and others.
Court records say that the deal, which has not yet been released publicly, is "explicitly conditioned upon ... being made public," along with the statement of facts and the disputed court records.
On Friday, ACLU attorney Peter Lancaster said the documents' release would help counter a "disinformation campaign orchestrated by TiZA."
Lancaster said that, among other things, records show that TiZA and its public relations firm, Tunheim Partners, engineered a complaint filed with federal civil rights investigators by the St. Paul chapter president of the NAACP. The complaint accused the state of racial discrimination in its dealings with TiZA.
"That's Mr. Lancaster's spin on a sealed document," said TiZA attorney Shamus O'Meara. Federal officials later dismissed the discrimination complaint.
Several other companies ordered to produce documents in the lawsuit have objected to their unsealing, including Tunheim, which is not a party in the case.
Frank said that, while he will decide whether court documents should be confidential, it's not his role to judge the public statement the state and ACLU plan to make.
Frank also heard arguments Friday about whether a trial in the case should be decided by a jury or a judge. The ACLU has argued against a jury trial, but TiZA says it's entitled to one. "I'm inclined to think that I may be obligated to have some piece of this go to a jury," Frank said at the hearing, though he has yet to rule on the issue.
The trial, previously expected to begin in June, is likely to be pushed back until this fall, Frank said.