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DISABILITY RIGHTS LAWYER KRISTIN AIELLO '89

photo of Kristin Aiello '89

 

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As an attorney for the Disability Rights Center (DRC) of Maine—a "protection and advocacy" agency for people with disabilities, funded by the state and federal government— Kristin Aiello usually helps one individual at a time: the man fired from his job because he has multiple sclerosis; the boy with muscular dystrophy seeking a school's accommodation for his wheelchair. So when she won Doe v. Rowe, a case with Constitutional scope and national implications, last August, she was excited enough to print out the judge's decision and place it by her bedside. "Every morning I'd wake up and read it," she says at her office in Augusta.

Doe v. Rowe overturned a long-standing provision of the Maine constitution that prohibited mentally ill people from voting if they had been placed under guardianship by the courts. Aiello and the DRC argued that being unfit to reliably pay one's bills or to stick with an appropriate course of medical treatment has nothing to do with one's ability to understand political issues or cast a ballot. What's more, Maine's courts had repeatedly failed to warn individuals that guardianship meant disenfranchisement, thereby "denying hundreds of citizens a basic civic right without due process," says Aiello. "In Maine, if you are a felon, you can vote," Aiello says. "If you are senile and don't even know your own name, you can vote. Technically, if you are in a coma you can vote. But if you happen to have been mentally ill"—what the state's archaic law termed "lunatic"—and were under guardianship, "you couldn't vote."

Aiello pressed Doe v. Rowe on behalf of three mentally ill women, two suffering from bipolar disorder and one from personality disorder. Her goal was to secure them a vote in the 2000 elections. Maine's citizens had already twice struck down referenda to abandon the law. Aiello finally prevailed on August 9, 2001, when a federal judge ruled that the law was a direct violation of the U.S. Constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

More than 40 states restrict the voting rights of people with mental disabilities, and mental health advocates predict that Aiello's success will spark similar suits elsewhere. "There's a saying we have in Maine," notes Aiello: "'As Maine goes, so goes the nation.' I hope that proves true."

Daniel B. Smith

Daniel B. Smith is a freelance writer based in New York City. His article on student filmmakers appeared in BCM Spring 2002.

Photo: Lee Pellegrini


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