LOS ANGELES (CN) - Los Angeles Superior Court unlawfully strips voting rights from thousands of disabled Americans who are under adult guardianship, an advocacy group claims in a complaint to the Department of Justice.
The Disability and Abuse Project of Spectrum Institute, "as next friend of limited conservatees under the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles Superior Court," sent a formal complaint against Los Angeles Superior Court on Thursday to the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division.
Project director Dr. Nora Baladerian said in a statement: "Being told that you are less than other Americans and that you cannot exercise your right to vote has a detrimental emotional and psychological effect on people with disabilities. We trust that Attorney General Eric Holder will take action to protect the rights of these deserving American citizens."
According to the 8-page complaint, thousands of people with developmental or intellectual disabilities lose their right to vote after parents petition probate court to allow them to make legal, financial and medical decisions for their adult children.
The advocacy group claims the violations stem in part from court conservatorship workshops, in which parents are prompted to check off a box confirming their adult child is unable to complete an affidavit of voter registration.
Judges rely on that stroke of a pen to find that conservatees are disqualified from voting, according to the complaint.
Disqualifying adults with developmental disabilities in this way violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965, because the court is using a literacy test to make a determination, and court-appointed attorneys disregard federal laws that allow parents to assist their adult children in filling out voter registration forms, according to the complaint.
The project's legal director Thomas Coleman said there was no mention of the Voting Rights Act when he attended a seminar for Probate Volunteer Panel attorneys hosted by the Superior Court and the Los Angeles County Bar Association.
"The attorneys were told by a judge that proposed limited conservatees will lose their voting rights if they are unable to complete a voter registration form on their own accord. The judge did not mention disability accommodation laws. He specifically stated that a mother could not help her son by filling out the registration form for him," Coleman wrote in the complaint.
Roughly 1,200 new limited conservatorship petitions go through the court every year. Most parents who file do not have a private lawyer to guide them through the process and rely on the court's self-help clinics, in addition to court-appointed attorneys.
The project says it was alerted to possible voting rights violations after Teresa Thompson, Ph.D., asked a court-appointed attorney how her 20-year-old autistic son's voting rights would be affected.
"Our investigation into that case revealed that her son's court-appointed attorney told Dr. Thompson that voting was contrary to the concept of conservatorship. The attorney filed a report with the court declaring that his client 'is not' able to complete an affidavit of voter registration. The attorney knew that if the court accepted his declaration to be true that his client would lose his right to vote," the project's legal director Thomas Coleman wrote in the July 10 filing.
Thompson told Coleman that court agent, nonprofit law firm Bet Tzedek, had instructed her to check the box on the affidavit of voter registration.
"She was not informed by anyone, nor did she know from any source, the significance of checking off that box," Coleman said in the complaint.
The legal director said a study of 61 limited conservatorship cases showed that in 90 percent of cases a judge disqualified conservatees from voting.
With an estimated 10,000 open limited conservatorship cases in Los Angeles County, and possibly 40,000 open cases in the state, Thomas said what was happening the county was the "tip of iceberg."
"The problem of voting rights violations of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities is not isolated to Los Angeles. Such civil rights violations are occurring elsewhere in California. Indeed, this is happening in many states throughout the nation," Coleman said in a statement.
The complaint alleges violations of civil rights protections, and violations of sections of the Voting Rights Act on literacy tests, disability accommodation, modifications of policy and discrimination.
Los Angeles Superior Court spokeswoman Mary Hearn declined to comment.