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
Photo: Lee Pellegrini