In Braylock v. Jesson, the Minnesota Supreme Court held that when a statutory amendment is a mere clarification of preexisting law, the amended statute may be applied retroactively to a previously filed petition. Braylock v. Jesson, No. A10-1754, 2012 WL 3192811 (Minn. 2012).

Here, the appellant, Ben Braylock, was an 80-year old committed sex offender. Braylock was charged with both third-degree criminal sexual conduct in 1988 and first-degree criminal sexual conduct in 1991. Id. In 2005, while Braylock was still incarcerated, the Minnesota Department of Corrections petitioned the Hennepin County District Court to involuntarily commit Braylock as a sexually psychopathic personality (“SPP”) and sexually dangerous person (“SDP”). Id. The district court granted the petition and ordered Braylock indeterminately committed as a SDP. Id.

In 2008, Braylock petitioned the Special Review Board for a provisional or full discharge from his civil commitment. Id. The Review Board denied Braylock’s petition and concluded that he failed to satisfy the requirements for full or provisional discharge. Id. Braylock then petitioned the Supreme Court Judicial Appeal Panel for rehearing and reconsideration of the Review Board’s recommendation. Id. The Appeal Panel also denied Braylock’s petition, concluding that he failed to present sufficient evidence to meet his initial burden of production under Minn. Stat §  253B.19, subd. 2(d). Id.  While Braylock’s petition was pending before the Appeal Panel, the Legislature amended Minn. Stat §  253B.19, subd. 2(d). Id.  However, the Appeal Panel did not evaluate the amended statute in its decision. Id.

In 2011, the Minnesota Court of Appeals, applying the amended statute, also denied Braylock’s petition for a provisional or full discharge from his civil commitment. Id.  Subsequent to the court of appeals denial of Braylock’s petition, Braylock petitioned the Minnesota Supreme Court for review. Id.  The Court granted review on the sole issue of whether the amended statute applied to Braylock’s petition for full or provisional discharge from civil commitment. Id.

The Court found that in order for a newly amended statute to apply retroactively, the Legislative amendment must be a clarification of preexisting law. Id. Otherwise, if the amendment constituted a substantive change in the law, the new law would not apply retroactively unless stated by the Legislature. Id.  The Court stated that, “[t]he Legislature’s amendment of a statute creates a presumption that the Legislature intended to change the law,” however, this presumption may be rebutted by a showing that the Legislature only intended to clarify the law. Id. To determine whether the amendment constituted a clarification of the law the court compared the language of the existing statute to the amended version. Id.

The previous version of the statute provided: “[t]he petitioning party bears the burden of going forward with the evidence.” Id.  The 2010 amended version provided: “[t]he petitioning party seeking discharge or provisional discharge bears the burden of going forward with the evidence, which means presenting a prima facie case with competent evidence to show that the person is entitled to the requested relief.” Id.

Upon reviewing both versions of the statute, the court concluded that, based on the specific terms used in the amended statute such as the phrase “which means,” the amendment was merely definitional or descriptive rather than a substantive change to the preexisting law. Id. Additionally, the court further noted that the amendment was not a change in the law because it did not change the underlying purpose of the existing statute. Id.

Braylock, however, alleged that the amendment created a substantive change in the law by shifting the burden of persuasion from the opposing party to Braylock as the petitioning party. Id. Specifically, Braylock argued that the amended statute required him “to produce a greater quantity of evidence in order to obtain relief.” Id. The court disagreed stating, “we are convinced that the pre-amendment and post-amendment versions of subdivision 2(d) require the petitioner to meet only a burden of production.”Id.

The Court concluded that the amendment was not a change in the law because it did not alter the burden of production or burden of persuasion applied to petitions for discharge. Id. Therefore, the Court affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeals.  Id.

By Jameelah Haadee, a 2012 Summer Associate at Larkin Hoffman Daly & Lindgren.