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Perspectives: Groundhog Day recalls repeat rulings

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

George Santayana, “The Life of Reason” (1905-06)

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the hit movie “Groundhog Day,” which first screened in 1993.

Its namesake, which falls on Thursday, Feb. 2 , reputedly heralds a short winter or a long one, depending upon whether the rodent known as “Phil” in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, emerging from hibernation sees its shadow and returns to its habitat.

In the 1993 movie named after the creature’s commemorative day, the lead character, Bill Murray playing a television weatherman, continuously repeats the same events of a particular day, aided by co-star Andie McDowell.

The federal and state appellate courts in Minnesota occasionally find themselves in a similar predicament, reviewing the same case on multiple occasions. When appellate tribunals engage in multiplicity of review of identical litigation, participants in the proceedings may have the feeling in the words of the judicial philosopher Yogi Berra, “it’s deja vu all over again.”

Suit syndrome 

One recent, high-profile manifestation of this “do-over” phenomenon is the closely-watched Twin Cities school de factor desegregation case, Cruz-Guzman v. State, entering its eighth year of litigation attempting to combat racial disparities between inner-city and suburban schools in the metropolitan area.

The latest ruling in that roller-coaster litigation, which is currently pending  in Hennepin County District Court upon remand 4½ years ago from the state Supreme Court, 916 N. W. 2d 1 (Minn. 2018), was a decision by the Court of Appeals early last fall affirming denial of summary judgment for a group of parents of inner-city students of racial and ethnic minorities. The appellate court held that the presiding judge, Susan Robiner, correctly determined that “racial imbalance” in the various metro school districts is not impermissible under the uniformity clause of Article XIII, Section 1 of the Minnesota Constitution in the absence of “intentional” action, which the claimants did not present at this stage of the  litigation. 980 N. W. 2d 816 Minn., Ct. App. 2022).

So, the case is back, again, with the trial judge after her earlier dismissal, which was subsequently reversed and remanded by the Supreme Court, creating the “Groundhog Day” syndrome for that suit.

A number of other Minnesota cases reflect the phenomenon of repeat re-litigation, and Groundhog Day provides an opportune occasion to review some of those repeats.

Three times

One of the “Groundhog” cases was a three-time decision by the Court of Appeals in in Powell v. Powell, 2006 WL 44336 (Minn. Ct. App. Jan. 10, 2006) (unpublished), revisiting a minority shareholder buyout dispute for the third time. On this occasion, it affirmed a ruling of the Hennepin County District Court upholding a buyout agreement between brother-sister shareholders for the book value of the shares. The court rejected claims by one of the shareholders that she was entitled to a greater percentage of the company due to delay in redeeming her shares, after the death of the siblings’ father, who started the company. The ruling was a culmination of two prior Court of Appeals’ decisions, sandwiched around a ruling by the Supreme Court, 660 N.W.2d 107 (Minn. 2003), vacating and remanding the Court of Appeals’ first ruling.

Despite potential ennui, some of these revisited rulings can be lively affairs. Here are a half-dozen examples of “Groundhog Day” litigation in state and federal appellate courts in Minnesota.

Hazard of Dukes

The hazard of multiple appellate court rulings in the same case was reflected in the prolonged litigation of Dukes v. State, culminating in a denial of a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. 660 N.W.2d 804 (Minn. 2003), cert. denied 540 U.S. 1107 (2004).

Convicted in Ramsey County District Court of aggravated robbery and two attempted murder charges, the defendant’s first appeal was denied by the Minnesota Supreme Court. 544 N.W.2d 13 (Minn. 1996). Four years later, the court remanded a petition for post-conviction relief for an evidentiary hearing on claims of ineffective assistance of counsel and recantation of an accomplice’s testimony, 621 N.W.2d 246 (Minn. 2001).

After relief was denied, the Supreme Court revisited the case for the third time, affirming denial of an evidentiary hearing on an ineffective-assistance claim based upon statements made by defense counsel during closing argument that “conceded some obvious facts,” including the acknowledgment that the co-defendants tried to rob someone but that his client was “duped” and not a knowing participant in the incident. These remarks did not amount to an implied concession of guilt warranting relief on grounds of ineffective representation, which requires a high standard of legal bungling.

Another criminal case yielded multiple proceedings before the Supreme Court in State v. Salazar, culminating in a ruling upholding admissibility of hearsay and of out-of-court statements challenged under the Confrontation Clause of the U.S. Constitution. 504 N.W.2d 774 (Minn. 1993). The defendant was convicted in Hennepin County District Court of criminal sexual conduct, based largely on out-of-court statements made by a child victim and her brother to their mother, which the mother then repeated to medical personnel.

The Supreme Court initially remanded the case for consideration of the trustworthiness of the statements in light of concerns that they may violate the Confrontation Clause and constitute inadmissible hearsay, a pair of intermingled legal principles. 494 N.W.2d 485 (Minn. 1993). After the Court of Appeals again upheld the conviction, the Supreme Court, in its second look, affirmed.

The high court found that the circumstance surrounding the statements made by the child victim and her brother possessed “particular guarantees of trustworthiness” and also were admissible under an exception to the hearsay rule for statements made for purposes of medical diagnosis or treatment. Testimony by the mother of her children’s identification of the perpetrator was admissible because the statements were not “unreliable … and the [children] had no apparent motive to fabricate.”

Civil cases

A major civil case concerning discrimination under the Minnesota Human Rights Act yielded important legal doctrines in two decisions by the state Supreme Court in Sigurdson v. Isanti County. 386 N.W.2d 715 (Minn. 1986) and 448 N.W.2d 62 (Minn. 1989). The case involved a woman employee of the Isanti County Assessor’s office who sued for gender discrimination for failure to promote.

The Supreme Court initially reversed adverse rulings by an Isanti County District Court judge and the Court of Appeals, reasoning that discrimination claims under the state statute are subject to the same three-pronged standard as parallel claims under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, derived from the McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973).

The second time around following remand, trial and appeal to the Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court held that the claim was not barred by the one-year statute of limitations under Minn. Stat. § 363.06, subd. 3, because the claim of gender discrimination constituted a “continuing violation,” which prolonged the statute of limitations from the date of the last act of discrimination.

The Court of Appeals twice within the past two years passed upon unusual dog-bite litigation in Hyatt v. Anoka Police Dep’t., twice upholding dismissal of a strict statutory lawsuit brought under Minn. Stat. § 347.22 by a woman bitten by a police dog while observing the apprehension of her husband. 680 N.W.2d 115 (Minn. Ct. App. 2004) and 700 N.W.2d 502 (Minn. Ct. App. 2005).

The Court of Appeals initially upheld dismissal by an Anoka County District Court judge, reasoning that the Legislature did not intend that the statute apply to law enforcement dogs, notwithstanding the broad language of the statute imposing liability upon the “owner” of any dog that bites someone else without provocation.

After reversal by the Supreme Court, which noted that the “plain language” of the dog-bite law could warrant a determination of liability, the Court of Appeals by a 2-1 vote again dismissed, finding that the city was immune under the doctrine of vicarious official immunity because the police were engaged in “discretionary actions … in the course of their official duties,” a principle that often shields law enforcement personnel and their employers from civil liability.

Federal few

Although federal courts seem to have fewer multiple appeal cases, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has had its share of “Groundhog Day” litigation.

In a Minnesota case, the 8th Circuit twice dealt with the consequences of a protective sweep by law enforcement personnel. Initially, it affirmed a ruling of U.S. District Court Judge James Rosenbaum in U.S. v. Hawkins, upholding a conviction for drug and weapons offenses that were derived from a protective search of the defendant’s premises. 59 F.3d 723 (8th Cir. 1995), cert. granted, judgment vacated, 516 U.S. 1168 (1996). But the case was sent back to the 8th Circuit in light of intervening case law regarding federal sentencing practices.

After Rosenbaum denied a downward departure from a 10-year sentence for being a felon-in-possession of a firearm, the 8th Circuit refused to review the case because his decision not to depart downward constituted a “discretionary decision,” which could not be challenged on appeal.

The high-profile litigation involving First Amendment rights of judicial candidates, Republican Party of Minnesota v. White, may take the cake for “Groundhog Day” litigation at the 8th Circuit level, which has examined the case on four occasions.

Initially,  the court affirmed the refusal by U.S. District Court Judge Michael J. Davis to enjoin a pair of provisions implemented by the Minnesota Board on Judicial Standards. The rules prohibit certain campaign practices for judges under the “announce” clause, which proscribes candidates from stating their positions on disputed issues, and the “solicitation” provision, which proscribes seeking campaign contributions or political party endorsements.

The court subsequently affirmed a ruling by Davis on the merits, 274 F.3d 854 (8th Cir. 2001), cert. granted 534 U.S. 1054 (2001), but the U.S. Supreme Court reversed on the “announce” rule, finding that it violates the freedom of speech rights of judicial candidates.

The 8th Circuit took a third look when it affirmed the renewed ruling by the trial court judge upholding the limitation on candidates from soliciting support from political parties. 361 F.3d 1035 (8th Cir. 2004) (vacated). But it then reversed en banc, holding that the “solicitation” prohibition violated the First Amendment rights of judges and judicial aspirants because it can “chill, even kill, political speech and associational rights.” 416 F.3d 738 (8th Cir. 2005).

The U.S. Supreme Court last week took another peek at the case and decided not to revisit this penultimate “Groundhog Day” case. 2006 WL 152093 (Jan. 23, 2006).

A lawsuit coming before an appellate tribunal on multiple occasions often bears the shadow of the initial ruling hovering over it. As these half-dozen cases reflect, the subsequent decisions may follow or divert from their predecessors on the same issue or address new questions as well.


“Groundhog Day”:  The Movie

  • Cost to 0roduce:  $30 million
  • Box office revenue:  $71 million (USA)
  • Rotten Tomato rating:  94%
  • Awards:  Best Comedy; Best Screenplay (British Academy of Film).

Marshall H. Tanick is an attorney with the Twin Cities law firm of Meyer Njus Tanick.

RELATED:  More Perspectives columns

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