A Hennepin County judge on Thursday ruled that a man under guardianship may vote, saying the Minnesota Constitution's removal of voting rights from people with guardians violates the U.S. Constitution.

Judge Jay Quam's order is a victory for Brian W. Erickson, who suffers from schizophrenia and is under guardianship but remains high-functioning. It's the second court ruling in the past two months that affirms voting rights among people who have court-appointed decision-makers.

An attorney for Erickson's guardian this year challenged Article VII of the state Constitution that bans a number of classes of people from voting, including those "under guardianship." That article contradicts language in state statutes that guarantees wards' right to vote unless it's taken away by a judge.

An estimated 22,000 Minnesotans have guardians because of advanced dementia, mental illness and other disabilities. In a 26-page order, Quam ruled that the language in the Minnesota Constitution is too broad.

"There are simply too many people under guardianship who are fully capable of exercising sound electoral judgment for the Court to conclude that the Minnesota Constitution can categorically disenfranchise those under guardianship as uniformly lacking the capacity to vote," Quam wrote.

It's a stance the Minnesota Legislature seems to recognize, he wrote, by ensuring wards have the right to vote unless a judge takes it away. Quam wrote that judges should make that evaluation when they're already deciding whether a proposed ward can live on his own or make medical decisions. The extra time and cost necessary to make the decision, he wrote, "are outweighed by the nature of the rights involved."

'Influential and instructive'

Robert McLeod, the attorney who represented Erickson's guardian, called Quam's decision "dramatic and compelling," and one that calls the judicial and legal communities to reflect closer on the rights of people with disabilities.

"It acknowledges the wide and varied aptitudes of persons with incapacity that was not acknowledged at the time the constitution was adopted," he said. "Very simply, an awful lot of people with varying forms of disabilities were lumped together and summarily discarded, and unfortunately, these were people who, in the fullness of history are largely unrepresented and without advocacy or voice. This decision acknowledges these unheard voices and appreciates the spectrum of abilities that should not be summarily dismissed by poor constitutional rhetoric."

McLeod said the order only applies to Erickson and other wards in Hennepin County Probate Court. But it's "influential and instructive," he said.

The state attorney general's office, whose job is in part to defend the state Constitution, did not appear at the July hearing, which is not uncommon, McLeod said. Now that the order has been issued, it's uncertain what happens next. A spokesman for Attorney General Lori Swanson declined to comment Thursday.

McLeod said he and his clients are waiting to determine their next step, which may be to request a judgment by the Minnesota Court of Appeals that would apply the ruling to every Minnesota citizen in similar situations.

In Quam's ruling, he pointed out that Erickson has articulated which candidates he supports and has a driver's license.

"Simply stated, he is the type of informed and dedicated voter that our country needs," Quam wrote.

Quam's decision followed a federal judge's August ruling in a separate case that challenged the state law that presumes people under guardianship have the right to vote.

The Minnesota Voters Alliance filed a lawsuit challenging election-day registration and voting rights for people under guardianship. The lawsuit was based in part on complaints of voting by people with disabilities in Crow Wing County. Judge Donovan Frank dismissed the alliance's claim, upholding the state law that supports voting rights for wards.

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921