JUDGE strikes down voting restrictions against mentally ill under guardianship

Saturday, August 11th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BANGOR, Maine _ A federal judge struck down a section of the Maine Constitution that bars mentally ill people under guardianship from voting.

In a 42-page decision Friday, U.S. District Judge George Singal concluded that the restriction adopted by the state in 1965 violated the U.S. Constitution and federal law.

Singal ruled on a lawsuit filed in October by the Maine Disability Rights Center on behalf of three mentally ill women. They claimed that the state unfairly singled out mentally ill people regardless of whether they were able to understand the voting process.

In a statewide referendum last November, voters rejected a proposal to lift the voting restriction, with 40 percent in favor and 60 percent opposed. A 1997 move to remove the provision from the constitution also was defeated overwhelmingly at the polls.

Maine Attorney General Steven Rowe said his office had fulfilled its duty to defend the Maine Constitution, but he was not personally disappointed with the outcome of the case.

``We are not presently inclined to appeal. However, we will review the opinion further before making a final decision,'' Rowe said.

The state had argued that probate judges should have the power to determine on a case-by-case basis whether a person has the mental capacity to vote.

``We're absolutely thrilled by the decision,'' said Kristin Aiello, who argued the case on behalf of the Disability Rights Center in Augusta. ``It's a great victory for my clients, as well as all people who have ever been discriminated against because of mental illness.''

Aiello said Singal's ruling could set a precedent for the 42 or 43 other states with similar provisions that limit people with disabilities from voting.

Singal concluded that disenfranchisement deprived mentally ill people of due process and violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

He also ruled that the state's restrictions ran afoul of the Americans With Disabilities Act.