Minnesota student wins access to state Board of Law Examiners records

Monday, September 14, 1998

The Minnesota Supreme Court recently ordered the state Board of Law Examiners to release its records, which contain information dating back to 1918.

Michael Ravnitzky, a third-year law student at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul filed a freedom-of-information request last year seeking access to the board's meeting minutes.

Ravnitzky was researching the legal profession's alleged exclusion of women, people of color, Jews, Catholics, people with unpopular political views and homosexuals. He also sought information on the board's process of transmitting character and fitness information to the National Conference of Bar Examiners in Chicago.

After the state board refused to turn over the records, citing rules which state that board meeting minutes are not public information, Ravnitzky filed a petition with the Minnesota Supreme Court. Since the board is an entity of the state Supreme Court, the court has to approve any changes to its rules.

The court responded with an order dated Aug. 18, which says in part: “Upon receiving a request for access to the public to past minutes of Board [of Law Examiners] meetings, the Director of the Board of Law Examiners shall respond as promptly as practical and shall explain to the person making the request the estimated time for complying with the response.”

Ravnitzky applauded the court's decision but has not yet received the records.

Ravnitzky said: “I think that the board's reluctance to release information reflected a
culture of secrecy that has no place in a democracy.

“The impact of this decision will be to allow researchers to view parts, at least, of the historical record concerning which groups of people were allowed and which groups were not allowed to practice law in Minnesota, and why,” Ravnitzky said.

Margaret Corneille, the board's executive director, said the information will be released after names of individuals are removed from the records to protect their privacy. She said the board is in the process of developing a time frame in which to release the information, but that removing confidential data could become an extensive process.

Corneille said: “The only issue about which we disagreed [with Ravnitzky's petition] was the need to go back to the minutes of past meetings. We had agreed that the meetings in the future should be divided between open and closed, public and confidential. I would anticipate that the majority of what the board accomplishes would be subject to the confidentiality rules.

“Besides historical value, I'm not sure how much significance the order has,” Corneille said. “I think it will give historians some additional information about the Board of Law Examiners, but I'm not viewing it as a major change in the way we do business.”

For example, the investigative process conducted on bar applicants is confidential, but the board's administrative actions involving its rules and policies would be considered public information.

Ravnitzky's attorney, Brian Bates, said that he was proud of Ravnitzky's efforts to open board records to public access.

“What's significant here is Michael,” Bates said “He's a third-year law student challenging the Board of Law Examiners. These are the people who will determine whether or not he practices law.”