Minn. court must reconsider felon’s name-change request

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Minnesota trial court will hear again the claims of a Minnesota felon who contends county officials violated his religious-freedom rights when they refused to allow him to change his name for the second time. A reviewing state appeals court last week expressed concern about the lower court’s failure to address the religious-freedom claims.

In 1992, Guy Israel Greene changed his name to Ozhaawaskoo Giishig, which he describes as an Ojibwa “spirit name.” Giishig now wants to change his name back to Greene, claiming that his spirit name, given to him by a medicine man, is only to be spoken and used in prayer ceremonies. Giishig claims that he wrongfully applied for the name change from Greene to Giishig years ago.

The catch is that Giishig, who is currently under civil confinement, has a lengthy history of felony convictions under the last name of Giishig. These include convictions for robbery, burglary and assault. In 1990 — before his first name change — he was convicted of second-degree criminal sexual conduct. The court did not divulge Giishig's location or the precise nature of or reason for his civil confinement, which can involve restriction to a home or institution.

The county denied Giishig’s name-change request, arguing that the change would compromise public safety because of his felonious history. The county contended that past criminal records must be easily accessible for public-safety reasons, and that allowing Giishig to change his name would obstruct easy access to those records. Giishig countered that because he is under civil confinement, his latest name-change request would not threaten public safety.

In 2007, a district court denied Giishig’s request, ruling that he had failed to show that his religious-freedom was infringed. The district court noted his “long record of felony convictions.” Giishig appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which ordered the lower court to re-evaluate Giishig’s claims under the Minnesota Constitution.

Minnesota has a law specifically addressing name-change requests by felons. It provides: “At any time within 30 days from the date of service of the notice of application for a name change under this section, the prosecuting authority or the attorney general may file an objection to the application for a name change. The objection may be made on the basis that the request aims to defraud or mislead, is not made in good faith, will cause injury to a person, or will compromise public safety.”

The law also provides that if the prosecuting authority files such an objection, then “no name change shall be granted unless the person requesting it proves by clear and convincing evidence that the request is not based upon an intent to defraud or mislead, is made in good faith, will not cause injury to a person, and will not compromise public safety.”

Clearly these provisions would seem to support the county’s position that given Giishig’s record of felonies, another name change would threaten public safety. However, another provision of the Minnesota law provides: “The court shall grant a name change if failure to allow it would infringe on a constitutional right of the person.”

In its Dec. 2 opinion in In Re Giishig, the Minnesota Court of Appeals noted: “Of particular concern, the district court did not substantively address whether appellant’s [Giishig’s] name change would compromise public safety.”

The appeals court also said the lower court failed to apply what it called the “constitutional ‘compelling state interest balancing test’” utilized in a 1992 Minnesota Supreme Court decision, Hill-Murray Fed’n of Teachers v. Hills-Murray High School. Under this test, courts must apply four factors to determine whether a law infringes a person’s religious liberty: (1) whether the claimant’s beliefs are sincerely held; (2) whether regulation burdens religious liberty rights; (3) whether the government has a compelling government interest in the regulation; and (4) whether the regulation is the least-restrictive way of furthering the government’s compelling interest.

“We are especially concerned with the paucity of findings because the district court order gives the impression that if a felon applies for a change of name, the prosecuting attorney need merely object and the application will be summarily denied,” the appeals court wrote.

On remand, the lower court will have to apply the “constitutional, compelling state-interest balancing test” and the Minnesota felon name-change statute in considering Giishig’s claim. County attorneys maintain that on remand they will be able to show that the request denial did not violate Giishig’s constitutional rights.

“The case now goes back to the district court which is going to reconsider the matter in light of the constitutional, religious freedom claim asserted,” said Assistant County Attorney for Sherburne County Arden Fritz in a telephone interview Dec. 8. “I plan on making some additional submissions [to the district court] which will address further how the denial of the name furthers public safety.”

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