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Court of Appeals overturns immigrant license rules
The Minnesota Court of Appeals has struck down rules regarding immigrant driver licenses enacted last year by former Department of Public Safety Commissioner Charlie Weaver. The decision will affect documentation immigrants were required to produce and their ID photos, but not other changes made by Weaver. Those changes were intended to tighten security in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. However, a coalition of groups including Jewish Community Action and the Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee argued the requirements discriminated against foreigners.

St. Paul, Minn. — The coalition had accused former Public Safety Commissioner Charlie Weaver of doing an end run around the Legislature, which failed to support the driver's license changes last session. He said the department was exempted from the public rulemaking process because based on a confidential FBI report, the department had "good cause" to address "a serious and immediate threat to the public health, safety, or welfare."

Judge Gordon Shumaker said the new rules address a public safety threat that arguably might be both serious and immediate. But because the Department of Public Safety didn't demonstrate how enacting the driver's license changes through public channels would be harmful, it struck down those changes.

The coalition's attorney, Todd Noteboom, said while he had hoped the court would've gone further and addressed the constitutional challenges, he's pleased with the result. "Today's decision is consistent with a strong and good history in Minnesota of being a welcoming place and an open place and a fair place to people in other parts of the country and other parts of the world," he said.

Under the rules enacted last July, first-time applicants for Minnesota driver's licenses had to show two forms of ID. And, photos on driver's licenses had to show a driver's entire face. Representatives of some groups objected to the photo requirement on religious grounds.

While the court struck down those requirements it did carve out an exception for another rule. It allowed the department to list the visa expiration dates on driver's licenses for those in the U.S. on temporary visas.

Weaver, now Governor Pawlenty's Chief of Staff called the decision a procedural ruling: "So the issue of whether the visa notations license remains. That was never really an issue. That was the authority of the commissioner to put the visa notation on the license is separate in terms of the issue of rulemaking. So the visa notation will remain on the license regardless of this rule."

The department enacted the rules as a way to guard against terrorists whose visas may have expired but who were still using driver's licenses as a form of ID. While last year's Legislature wouldn't support the driver's license changes, the idea is a hot topic during this session. The House has already passed a bill this year that would put the changes into law, but the Senate has yet to take action. Governor Tim Pawlenty and Republican legislators want to make the new rules permanent.

Pawlenty said the merits of the argument are stronger than ever. "During the campaign I was mocked by some saying there weren't terrorists in Minnesota. And since the campaign we've had several alleged Minnesota roots and Minnesota connections," he said.

Teresa Nelson, a Minnesota Civil Liberties Union staff attorney, said overall the ruling is good because it reinforces an open system in Minnesota.

"The impact of these rules should be debated before they're adopted, and I think this decision makes sure that's going to happen," she said.

Judge Shumaker said while the Department of Public Safety was acting in good faith it could not show a particularly strong link between regulating driver's licenses and terrorist crimes. The Department of Public Safety said fewer than one percent of state driver's license holders had been affected by the changes.

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