County judge rejects Minnesota’s new felon voting law

As they say at the bingo hall, hold your cards! A district court judge in Mille Lacs County is telling some felons to hold their voter registration cards despite Minnesota’s new law allowing them to vote. Judge Matthew Quinn handed down two felony sentences this week that included separate warnings for two felons not to attempt to vote in a Minnesota election. He specifically prohibited the felons from “registering to vote, or voting, or attempting to vote.”

Judge Quinn believes the recent law passed by the Minnesota legislature granting felons the right to vote before they serve their entire sentence is unconstitutional. The judge believes the plain language of the Minnesota constitution, left unchanged by the legislature, still prevents felons from voting until their entire sentence is completed, not when they are simply let out of prison.

Section 1. Eligibility; place of voting; ineligible persons.

Every person 18 years of age or more who has been a citizen of the United States for three months and who has resided in the precinct for 30 days next preceding an election shall be entitled to vote in that precinct. The place of voting by one otherwise qualified who has changed his residence within 30 days preceding the election shall be prescribed by law. The following persons shall not be entitled or permitted to vote at any election in this state: A person not meeting the above requirements; a person who has been convicted of treason or felony, unless restored to civil rights; a person under guardianship, or a person who is insane or not mentally competent.

The key words in the constitution are “restored to civil rights.” What is the definition of restoration of civil rights? Judge Quinn (appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton, by the way) believes if the legislature wants to change the definition of “restored to civil rights” they have to change the language in the constitution.

The Minnesota Voters Alliance agrees and filed a lawsuit this summer challenging the new felon voting law. It now looks like this case and the judge’s orders will be combined at some point in front of the Minnesota Supreme Court. The MVA argument hinges on the fact that the constitution refers to civil rights as plural, extending beyond voting.

Under the Minnesota Constitution, Article VII, section 1, those convicted of a felony crime may not vote “unless restored to civil rights.” That’s “civil rights,” plural, meaning all civil rights that a non-felon possesses. The Constitution does not create legislative authority to restore the singular right to vote before all civil rights are restored to an individual convicted of a felony.

The suite of civil rights extends beyond the right to vote to include the right to freely travel, hold office, or serve on a jury, not to mention owning a firearm.

Minnesota Voters Alliance is represented by the Upper Midwest Law Center’s James Dickey. Dickey’s strategy is to remind the state Supreme Court of their own words in Schroeder v. Simon, where the court upheld Minnesota’s long-standing prohibition on felon voting:

[T]he very fact that probation and conditional release did not exist in 1858 means that release from incarceration was the completion of a sentence. Accordingly,…one way to interpret the framers’ understanding of the phrase “unless restored to civil rights” is that restoration occurs upon completion of the sentence.

That’s pretty clear language. Restoration of rights (plural) occurs upon the completion of the sentence. In Minnesota, that means done with incarceration and done with probation or parole.

It will be interesting to see how our Supreme Court justices find a way to contradict their own ruling in Schroeder from this February. Sadly, I have faith in their creativity under the law.