Economist's View: With arbitrary lawmaking, enforcement, two Minnesotas are emerging
In May, Kris Schiffler, owner of Shady’s Hometown Tavern in Albany, Minnesota, announced he was going to open his bar on the afternoon of the 18th. The bar had been closed nearly two months, in accordance with Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order closing “non-essential” businesses to slow the spread of COVID-19. Schiffler and his staff were hurting: “I can end up broke and on the street, just like 163 employees of mine are going to do the same thing in a little bit here if we don’t get operating,” he said.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison descended on Schiffler with lightning speed and the full force of state government. He prepared a lawsuit for Stearns County District Court asking for an emergency court injunction and a $25,000 fine to stop the opening, saying: “My office has the duty to enforce the law and the governor’s order.” Schiffler’s bar remained closed.
This month, a large group of demonstrators blocked off the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, protesting the killing of an Ethiopian singer and activist named Hachalu Hundessa. Blocking the traffic in this way is illegal — as illegal as opening your bar — and for good reason. During the recent protests over George Floyd’s death in police custody, we saw how the authorities botched their highway closure and only the quick thinking and skilled driving of truck driver Bogdan Vechirko stopped something horrible from happening. Surely, any minute now, Attorney General Ellison will swoop in, declaring: “My office has the duty to enforce the law.”
His office doesn’t. As this dangerous tactic becomes increasingly common in the Twin Cities, Attorney General Ellison remains silent. While his office saw a duty to enforce the law against Schiffler, it saw no such duty to enforce it against these protesters.
We are seeing this unequal treatment before the law time and again. When vandals publicly announced their intention to haul down the statue of Christopher Columbus at the state Capitol, authorities stood by and let them. While grieving Minnesotans have seen funerals curtailed by state government decree, the same policymakers who issued those decrees exempted themselves from them when they found it convenient, as Twin Cities newspapers reported.
Whether or not the law applies to you in Minnesota seems to depend on how the state authorities feel about you, how big your business is, and how “connected” you are. That is not how the rule of law is supposed to work.
Gov. Walz likes to talk about “one Minnesota,” but when it comes to who the law gets applied to, it seems that there are two very distinct Minnesotas. There is the Minnesota of Mr. Schiffler, where the state will steamroll you if you step out of line. And then there is the Minnesota of the protesters, attendees of favored events, and the mob who tore down the Columbus statue. The laws don’t apply to them.
“One Minnesota” is a smart slogan. That is all it is.
John Phelan of St. Paul is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment (AmericanExperiment.org), a public-policy nonprofit based in Golden Valley, Minnesota. He wrote this for the News Tribune.