Lawsuit challenges Missouri voting laws

Thursday, October 21, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:51 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 12, 2008

In 2000, Steven Prye was a successful attorney and law professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A year later, after the deaths of his mother and brother, Prye was living on the streets of Memphis, Tenn.

Eventually, Prye, 52, was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, which depletes his concentration and makes it difficult for him to remember to take a bath or comb his hair.

An Illinois judge decided Prye was mentally incapacitated and appointed a guardian to look after his welfare in 2003, shortly before he moved to St. Louis. A month ago, Prye tried to register to vote in Missouri, but learned that the state constitution says people who rely on guardians to look after their affairs are not allowed to vote.

Today, Prye will appear in a Kansas City courtroom to argue for his right to cast a ballot Nov. 2. The case — a lawsuit filed earlier this month against Secretary of State Matt Blunt, Attorney General Jay Nixon and other state election officials — is only the second in U.S. history to challenge the assumption that people under guardianship for mental illness are not qualified to participate in the political process.

Jennifer Mathis, a lawyer with Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law and one of Prye’s attorneys, said her client is more informed than many Americans who will pull the lever next month. In particular, Prye is concerned with the impact the next president will have on the Supreme Court, Mathis said, and he wants to have a say in the matter.

“He is perfectly capable of understanding the voting process,” Mathis said.

Prye’s lawsuit could affect tens of thousands of Missouri residents who rely on guardians to help them make decisions about finances, legal issues and health care. In Boone County, nearly 300 people are under the guardianship of Public Administrator Connie Hendren. Hundreds more have family member or friends as private guardians. Hendren said that rates of guardianship have tripled in Boone County in the last decade. People who would have been institutionalized at places like Fulton State Hospital and Woodhaven Campus are now living in the community, she said.

“Those individuals are doing pretty well,” Hendren said. “They just need help to live in the community successfully.”

Missouri is one of 26 states that deny voting rights to people with court-appointed guardians. While states like Pennsylvania and Colorado place no restrictions on voting by the mentally ill or anyone with a guardian, the constitutions of Mississippi and New Jersey still retain language that disqualifies “idiots” and “insane persons” from voting. Mathis said that such terms are indicative of the longtime stigma attached to the mentally ill.

“So many people with mental illness are so disempowered,” Mathis said. “They are used to being denied so many things from driver’s licenses to library cards.”

Denise Lieberman of the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, which is also helping with Prye’s suit, says it is unfair to disenfranchise people who may be incapacitated in one aspect of their lives, but capable in others.

Lieberman and others said that Missouri does not consider whether a person under guardianship is truly incapable of making a decision in the voting booth before revoking the right to vote.

“People shouldn’t have their right to vote, their right to be a citizen stripped from them without a compelling justification,” Lieberman said.

In Missouri, a person under full guardianship loses the right to drive, to marry, to enter into contract and to vote, among other things. These rights may be restored individually by a judge through court petition.

In 1983, a judicial committee chaired by Jackson County Circuit Judge John Borron amended Missouri law to make partial guardianship an option for less-incapacitated persons. A limited guardianship leaves all of a person’s rights intact, unless they are specifically denied by the judge during guardianship proceedings.

“The 1983 code revision changed everything,” said Borron, who is now retired. “It looked at the functional ability of individuals, not their labels.”

During his 33 years on the bench, Borron presided over thousands of guardianship cases. There is no standard legal procedure for determining voting capacity, he said, but such assessments can be made by evaluating a person’s general orientation and behavior patterns.

“There’s no 1-2-3 rule to do it,” Borron said. “A judge’s experience is his best strength.”

Borron’s efforts made it possible for Rocheport resident Jeff Wesley to reclaim his right to vote. Hendren was appointed Wesley’s full-time guardian in 1993 because of mental illness.

In 1999, Wesley told Hendren that his father had always supported Republicans and that he wanted to do so in the next presidential election. She helped him petition a Boone County judge, who reinstated his right to vote. In 2000, Wesley helped elect our current president.

“I just wanted to have the person of my choice in the White House,” he said.

Many people under guardianship aren’t always told about their lost rights. Wesley said he didn’t know he could no longer vote until after his case had been decided in court.

“The attorney is supposed to explain that to the individual during guardianship proceedings,” he said.

After today’s hearing, Prye’s lawyers will ask the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri to find the state law regarding guardianship and voting rights in violation of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Three years ago, a Maine court overturned similar legislation, concluding that guardianship status cannot be used as a sole predictor of a person’s ability to understand voting.

Today, Prye, who was educated at Yale and Harvard, lives alone in St. Louis and has been able to reconnect with old friends who help care for him. Some days he seems frazzled and disconnected, said Anthony Rothert of the Illinois Guardianship and Advocacy Commission. But he enjoys opera and sorting through political coverage.

“He’s an extraordinary man,” said Rothert, who has known Prye for a year. “He has an extraordinary background and an extraordinary mind.”

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