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Top state leaders, ACLU-MN accuse Mille Lacs County judge of undermining Restore the Vote Act

WCCO digital update: Morning of Oct. 18, 2023
WCCO digital update: Morning of Oct. 18, 2023 01:07

MILLE LACS COUNTY, Minn. — Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon and Attorney General Keith Ellison say a Mille Lacs County judge is undermining a new voting law.

In a joint statement Tuesday, they said the judge issued orders that barred two people with felony convictions from voting even though they were sentenced to only probation.

They say the judge's order "flies in the face" of the Restore the Vote Act, which went into effect on June 1. The new law means a person with a felony conviction can have their right to vote restored "during any period when the individual is not incarcerated for the offense."

MORE NEWS: On National Voter Registration Day, Minnesota group celebrates felon voting rights restoration

Mille Lacs County District Judge Matthew Quinn declared the new law unconstitutional in the pair of orders last week. It was an unusual step because nobody involved in those cases ever asked him to rule on the constitutionality of the law.

In his orders, Quinn concluded the Legislature's passage of the law did not constitute the kind of "affirmative act" he said was needed to properly restore a felon's civil rights. So he said he now has a duty going forward to "independently evaluate the voting capacity" of felons when they complete probation. 

Simon and Ellison say they believe the judge's orders are unlawful and they will oppose them. The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota also released a statement Wednesday, calling the ruling "procedurally unprecedented." Read the full statements at the end of the article. 

The judge was reprimanded by the Minnesota Board on Judicial Standards two years ago for his public support of former President Donald Trump and his critical comments about President Joe Biden. The county court administration office referred news media calls seeking comment from Quinn to the Minnesota Judicial Branch, which said he can't answer questions and, through a spokesperson, declined to comment on his actions.

The law expanded voting rights to at least 55,000 Minnesotans. It was a top priority for Democrats, who framed it as a matter of racial equity and part of a national trend.

RELATED: Minneapolis sees 2,000+ mail-in ballots in first two weeks of early voting

The attorney general plans to defend the law but is still determining the next steps.

"Attorney General Ellison takes seriously his constitutional duty to defend Minnesota statutes, and plans to intervene in these matters to uphold the statute as well as the rule of law," said his spokesperson, Brian Evans.

Quinn, who was appointed by former Democratic Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton in 2017, was publicly reprimanded by the ethics board in 2021 for expressing support for Trump on social media and participating in a "Trump Boat Parade" on the Mississippi River while wearing a Make America Great Again hat and flying Trump flags from his boat. He called Biden a vulgarity in one post. The reprimand noted Quinn deactivated his Facebook account when he learned of the board's investigation and admitted his actions were "imprudent, indecorous and contrary to the spirit of the Canons."

Quinn's term expires in 2025. Minnesota's judicial races are officially nonpartisan and its judges generally try to stay out of the political fray.

SOS and AG full statement:

"After decades of effort by Minnesotans, on June 1, 2023, voting rights were restored to those who have left prison behind. Last week's orders, issued by one judge in one of Minnesota's 87 counties, fly in the face of the Minnesota Supreme Court's ruling earlier this year that deferred the decision on voting rights to the legislature.

"We believe the judge's orders are not lawful and we will oppose them. The orders have no statewide impact, and should not create fear, uncertainty, or doubt. In Minnesota, if you are over 18, a U.S. citizen, a resident of Minnesota for at least 20 days, and not currently incarcerated, you are eligible to vote. Period. It is critically important that everyone whose rights were restored understands that they are welcome in our democracy.

"We encourage all who are eligible to register and vote." 

ACLU-MN full statement:

"Based on what we have learned about this situation, the judge's ruling is procedurally unprecedented. Courts are constitutionally bound to provide due process to parties, which includes an opportunity to be heard by an unbiased decision maker; to decide actual cases and controversies; and to refrain from issuing advisory opinions or deciding cases merely to create precedent. This judge's ruling seems to clearly go beyond these guardrails.

"Our understanding is that this judge took it upon himself during routine criminal sentencings to decide the issue of the constitutionality of a statute of his own accord. The issue was not raised by any party or attorney in the cases before the judge, nor was anyone given notice that he was even considering this issue, let alone the opportunity to provide briefing or oral argument. The judge produced this opinion out of thin air. Given the judge's prior public reprimand by the Minnesota Board of Judicial Standards for improper public partisanship, it is difficult not to wonder whether judicial activism is afoot.

"During these sentencings, the judge already has directly barred two people from voting and even registering to vote while on probation. Moving forward, this judge's actions will likely be especially harmful to Indigenous people who are a sizeable part of the population in Mille Lacs County and have long faced disparities and inequalities in our criminal legal system.

"The right to vote is the cornerstone of our constitutional democracy and unequivocally recognized as a foundational and fundamental right. The ACLU of Minnesota will work feverishly to get this judge's ruling overturned and ensure that Minnesotans who worked so long and so hard for this right won't lose their vote and their voice in their own futures."  - David McKinney, ACLU-MN staff attorney 

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