Despite objections from Maine voters, a federal judge in that state overturned a state law in August that kept people with mental illness under guardianship from voting.
U.S. District Judge George Singal ruled in Doe v. Rowe that the voting prohibition violated the 14th Amendment, which prohibits states from denying any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of laws.
Singal’s decision also declared that the voting ban defied the federal Americans With Disabilities Act and "singled out, for no legitimate basis, people with psychiatrically based diagnoses. . . while permitting incapacitated persons with mental retardation or senility to vote as they choose."
Last October the Maine Disability Rights Center filed a lawsuit on behalf of three women with mental illness who wanted to vote in the 2000 election but faced resistance. The center is part of a national network of protection and advocacy agencies that seek to protect and advance the rights of people with disabilities.
The women, who were given the names Jane, Jill, and June Doe to protect their anonymity, faced an odd paradox. That year, there was a referendum on the ballot asking Maine citizens if they were in favor of overturning the voting restriction. In essence, the Doe women were being restricted from voting on a referendum that would allow them to vote.
In a move to strike the voting prohibition from Maine’s 200-year-old constitution, the Maine legislature first brought the referendum to the public in 1997, according to Kristin Aiello, J.D., who is an attorney with the Maine Disability Rights Center and represented the plaintiffs in the case.
The referendum failed, and the legislature brought it before Maine voters again in the election of 2000.
The November 2000 ballot asked Maine voters, "Do you favor amending the constitution of Maine to end discrimination against persons under guardianship for mental illness for the purpose of voting?" As it turned out, 60 percent did not favor ending this prohibition.
Aiello told Psychiatric News that she was disappointed by the outcome of the referendum and dismayed when she overhead someone say that she voted against the proposition because "enough crazy people are voting anyway."
Since the referenda failed to overturn the discriminatory law, the Maine legislature turned to the federal court system, which, Aiello believed, was the route that the legislature should have taken in the first place. "I am not comfortable with going to the public to reserve basic, fundamental rights," said Aiello. "There is a reason we have federal courts to turn to when discrimination is happening."
The Maine constitution as adopted in 1812 prevented "paupers and persons under guardianship" from voting. However, an amendment in 1965 narrowed this restriction to specify that those "under guardianship for reasons of mental illness" are prohibited from registering to vote or voting in any election. The amendment even stated that those who purposefully disobeyed this law would be subject to criminal prosecution.
The three plaintiffs had the capacity to vote when they were placed under guardianship, according to Aiello. "The tragic thing was that the probate court did not inquire about whether the women had the capacity to vote before placing them under guardianship," she said, noting that the women were placed under public guardianship in large part so that they could adhere to their treatment strategies.
A state court told one of Aiello’s clients, Jane Doe, a 33-year-old Maine resident under guardianship because of severe bipolar disorder, that she could vote in the November 2000 election if she went to a county probate court and requested that her voting restriction be lifted. This motion was granted right before the election, and Jane Doe was able to vote.
The other two clients came up against resistance, however. Jill Doe appeared in probate court requesting the right to vote, and the probate judge denied her motion because he did not think he had the authority to grant her this right, according to Aiello.
June Doe could not ask the probate court for the right to vote in time for the 2000 election because she was in the hospital. Moreover, since she lived in the same county as Jill and would be seeking the right to vote from the same judge, she thought it would be futile to make the request, according to Aiello.
Roger Wilson, M.D., who is June Doe’s psychiatrist, provided the court with evidence of his patient’s ability to vote. Wilson, who is clinical director of the Bangor Mental Health Institute, called City Hall and asked for a leftover ballot from the previous year.
"I gave it to my patient without any coaching and asked her to fill it out, which she did," said Wilson.
According to Wilson, June Doe was able to discern the various issues on the ballot and expressed a specific desire not to cast a vote on some issues because she "did not want to vote on issues she did not know."
Wilson told Psychiatric News that Singal emphasized an important point: many patients with mental illness are under guardianship because they need help with treatment compliance, and that when in treatment, most have the ability to vote.
"The irony of the Maine situation was that those patients who had the best chance to have the capacity to vote were denied that right," said Wilson.
While people under guardianship for mental illness now have a right to vote in Maine, many other states continue to silence people with disabilities.
According to Kay Schriner, Ph.D., who is footnoted in Singal’s decision and is an expert on voting rights for people with disabilities, 43 states keep people with some form of "mental incompetence" from voting. The definition of what constitutes mental incompetence varies from state to state, however.
"In some states, people with mental retardation are excluded [from voting]. In other states, someone with a physical impairment that causes problems with comprehending information is excluded," said Schriner.
Some states use different stipulations to keep people away from the polls. In Massachusetts, for instance, anyone under guardianship for any reason is prohibited from going to the polls on election day.
In the meantime, Aiello believes that Maine will serve as a model for other states. "I have heard attorneys in many other states who are interested in looking into provisions in their own state constitutions and challenging them," said Aiello. She sees Singal’s decision as a "victory for all people who have ever been discriminated against because of mental illness."
Singal’s decision is posted on the Web at www.med.uscourts.gov/opinions/Singal/2001. ▪