Guardianship plays crucial role in right-to-vote case

Thursday, October 28, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:41 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

A federal judge has denied a St. Louis resident with mental illness the right to vote in the upcoming election.

Steven Prye, who is under guardianship, petitioned the court after his bid to register to vote in Missouri was rejected. State law prohibits people who rely on full-time guardians from participating in the electoral process.

Tuesday’s decision by Ortrie Smith, a judge for the Western District of Missouri, found that the responsibility for determining the voting capacity of people with mental illness lies with state probate courts, where guardianship cases are decided.

“The public’s interests are ill-served by granting (Prye’s) motion,” Judge Smith wrote in his decision.

According to Terry Jarrett, one of the state’s attorneys, it would be premature for a federal judge to decide whether Prye is capable of casting a ballot before his case goes through the state court system.

“The probate courts have the expertise to make these decisions,” he said.

At last week’s hearing in Kansas City, Prye’s lawyers argued that his capacity to vote in Missouri hadn’t been properly evaluated before his right was revoked. Until a probate judge can evaluate Prye, they said he should be able to cast a vote Nov. 2. Prye’s lawyers also submitted affidavits from three mental-health professionals who examined Prye and found that “he can understand and appreciate what it means to vote.”

However, the state’s lawyers countered with an affidavit from Bruce Harry, psychiatrist at Fulton State Hospital. . Harry, who acknowledged that he has never met nor examined Prye, said that upon reviewing Prye’s medical records he determined that the “available information strongly suggests” that Prye lacks the competency to vote.

“I was asked to review whether there were things in his record that could speak to anything that a person would need to be able to vote,” Harry said after the hearing. “I just pointed out what I thought was a different way to look at it.”

Prye was placed under full guardianship in Illinois, where people with guardians can vote, three months before he relocated to Missouri last spring.

“Our next step is to ask an Illinois court to grant Prye the right to vote,” said Anthony Rothert of the Illinois Guardianship and Advocacy Commission.

Rothert said he expects that because Missouri recognizes Prye’s full guardianship from Illinois, the state should accept a decision from Illinois that grants Prye the right to vote. Rothert is unsure whether an Illinois court will take up Prye’s right to vote case in Missouri. But he said Prye is prepared to pursue any legal steps that might restore his voting rights. Prye could also ask a court to grant him a limited guardianship, Rothert said, which could restore his right to vote.

Prye’s lawsuit claims that Missouri law regarding guardianship and voting rights violates the U.S. Constitution. His lawyers said he will drop that portion of the suit if the probate court restores his right to vote.

Prye was saddened by the judge’s verdict, Rothert said, but not surprised.

“He was very disappointed, but I had prepared him that this would be the likely result,” Rothert said.

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