Federal Court Strikes Down Maine Law Restricting Voting For People With Mental Illnesses
Last week, a Federal Judge issued a decision striking down a provision in the Maine Constitution that bars people with mental illnesses who are under guardianships from voting. This decision, which held that restrictions of this nature violate the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), is potentially very significant because it sets a precedent that can be used to challenge similar restrictions in other states.
Voting is a fundamental right of American citizenship, as fundamental as freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Yet, 43 states have laws on the books limiting in some form or another the rights of citizens with mental disabilities to vote. Some of these laws specifically impose broad restrictions on voting by people with mental illnesses. These laws are based on outdated notions that severe mental illnesses rob individuals of the capacity to understand political issues or to make informed choices about political candidates.
The case concerned a provision in the Constitution of Maine that bars voting by persons under guardianships due to mental illness. No similar restrictions apply to people who are under guardianships for reasons other than mental illness. In recent years, several ballot initiatives to repeal this constitutional provision were rejected by Maine's voters. In 2000, three individuals under guardianship due to mental illness filed a lawsuit in federal court through their public guardian challenging the voting restriction. These individuals were represented by the Disability Rights Center of Maine, the state's designated protection and advocacy (P&A) agency.
U.S. District Court Judge George Singal ruled that the voting restriction on persons under guardianships due to mental illness violates the U.S. Constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Laws restricting the fundamental right to vote are justified, the Judge stated, only when narrowly tailored to meet a state's compelling interest in "ensuring that those who cast a vote have the mental capacity to make their own decision by being able to understand the nature and effect of the voting act itself." Maine's law, the judge held, targets "a subset of mentally ill citizens based on a stereotype rather than any actual relevant incapacity." The Judge cited evidence that incapacity for purposes of making decisions about treatment or personal property does not necessarily equate with incapacity for purposes of voting. His conclusion that the law unfairly targeted people with mental illnesses was also influenced by recognition that persons incapacitated due to mental retardation or other mental or cognitive disorders were not similarly disenfranchised.
The Judge also emphasized that disenfranchising individuals under guardianships due to mental illness violates their fundamental right to due process under the law because they are neither informed that a determination of incapacity will result in losing the right to vote nor afforded the opportunity to contest this loss. "No fair and reasonable reading of Maine's current guardianship provisions ensures uniform adequate notice regarding the potential disenfranchising effects of being placed under guardianship for a mental illness."
NAMI's Executive Director, Richard C. Birkel, hailed the decision as a significant step in increasing access to the political process for people with mental illnesses. "This is a tremendous victory for consumers", Birkel said. "Just because people have mental illnesses doesn't mean that they should be prevented from participating in elections as members of the community. The right to vote is fundamental for all Americans and participation in this process may indeed be a significant part of recovery."
The Federal District Court in Maine is the second Court in the last year to strike down a voting restriction imposed on people with mental illnesses. In 2000, a New Jersey State Court ruled that an effort to restrict individuals involuntarily committed to psychiatric hospitals from voting was based on faulty and prejudicial stereotypes about people in these hospitals. The Court held that those challenging the right of individual residents of psychiatric hospitals to vote bear the burden of proving, by clear and convincing evidence, that these individuals lack the capacity to vote. This burden cannot be met with generalized assumptions about the cognitive status of patients in these hospitals.
Unlike the Maine decision, the New Jersey Court did not directly address voting restrictions contained in that State's Constitution. Thus, a provision in New Jersey's Constitution stating that "no idiots or insane persons shall enjoy the right of suffrage" remains in effect.
In view of significant progress that has occurred in treating brain disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, there is little justification today to keep laws on the books imposing categorical restrictions on the rights of people with mental illnesses to vote. There is no evidence that persons with severe mental illnesses, even those who are hospitalized or under guardianships, are any less capable of making informed political decisions than other Americans. Studies conducted on the voting choices made by individuals with mental illnesses who are hospitalized support this position.
There is also ample evidence that many voters who do not suffer from mental illnesses are not particularly well informed about the views and ideas of political candidates they elect to office. For example, a survey conducted during the 1992 Presidential campaign revealed that far more people (89%) knew that Vice President Quayle was feuding with television's Murphy Brown than knew Presidential Candidate Bill Clinton's record on the environment (19%).
Last year, many NAMI Affiliates participated in a national nonpartisan campaign to help people with mental illnesses register and exercise their right to vote. This "I Vote I Count 2000" Campaign empowered thousands of citizens living with mental illnesses to participate in the political process for the first time. NAMI consumers and families participated in rallies, candidate forums, mailings, education workshops and voter registration drives in communities all across the nation.
Despite this progress, too many states still have laws imposing unnecessary restrictions on the right to vote for persons with mental illnesses. At a time of great hope and progress in treating mental illnesses, restrictions of this nature are both unfair and counter to the best interests of consumers. Consumers, family members, and other advocates should work in concert with state legislators to repeal these discriminatory prohibitions. The Maine and New Jersey decisions demonstrate that the Courts may also be allies in these efforts.
We extend our congratulations and appreciation to the three courageous individuals who stepped forward as Plaintiffs in this important case, as well as Kristin Aiello, Esq. of the Maine Disability Law Center who served as lead attorney in the case.
The decision in this case, entitled Doe v. Rowe, can be accessed on line at www.med.uscourts.gov/opinions/Singal/2001