Minnesota Secretary Of State - Secretary Simon stands in support of Attorney General Ellison intervention to stop Mille Lacs County judge from interfering with legal right to vote
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Secretary Simon stands in support of Attorney General Ellison intervention to stop Mille Lacs County judge from interfering with legal right to vote

October 23, 2023

SAINT PAUL — Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announced on October 20 that his office has intervened in two cases at the Minnesota Court of Appeals in support of writs of prohibition against Mille Lacs County District Court Judge Matthew M. Quinn. In a total of at least six cases over two weeks, Judge Quinn has sentenced people convicted of felonies to probation — then has issued an order that declares Minnesota’s new Restore the Vote law unconstitutional and bars them from exercising their legal right to vote. This flies in the face of the new law (Minn. Stat. §201.014, subd. 2A (2023)), which clearly says a person with a felony conviction “has the civil right to vote restored during any period when the individual is not incarcerated for the offense.”

“Judicial restraint and respect for the separation of powers are essential principles of our justice system. When either of those principles is violated, Minnesotans lose trust in the system — and Judge Quinn has violated both principles,” Attorney General Ellison said. “I support a writ of prohibition as the best option for quickly keeping Judge Quinn from further violating our justice system and Minnesotans’ trust.”

Attorney General Ellison continued, “It took two decades to pass a law to restore the right to vote to people who are longer incarcerated, and the new law that restores that right is fully constitutional. Minnesotans should know Judge Quinn’s illegal orders have no effect on their voting rights. I strongly encourage all eligible Minnesotans — especially those no longer incarcerated — to fully exercise their right to register to vote and to vote. The health of our democracy depends on the full participation of every eligible voter — no exceptions.”

At the same time, Secretary of State Steve Simon stood with Attorney General Ellison to offer support for these legal efforts as well as to defend the right to vote for all eligible Minnesotans.

“We cannot allow for any distortion of the rules for voter eligibility in Minnesota. Local elections in communities across Minnesota will take place in just 18 days — on November 7. And voting in Minnesota’s 2024 presidential nominating primary starts just 13 weeks from today — on January 19,” Secretary Simon said. “Minnesota has a proud tradition of showing up at the polls in nation-leading numbers, and I know that will continue.”

Two of the individuals that Judge Quinn has unlawfully prohibited from exercising their legal right to vote have filed for a writ of prohibition at the Court of Appeals. A writ of prohibition is appropriate when a district court exceeds its authority and causes an injury for which there is no other speedy or adequate remedy. Writs of prohibition serve as a check on the improper exercise of judicial power and are warranted to prevent a district court from violating separation-of-powers principles.

On October 19, Attorney General Ellison’s office filed notices to intervene in those cases and filed memorandums in support of the writs of prohibition. In the filings, Attorney General Ellison argues that Judge Quinn abused his authority in ruling the Restore the Vote law unconstitutional. Courts are supposed to be neutral decision-makers and decide the issues that parties raise. Courts are not supposed to independently raise and decide issues on their own. Judicial restraint is especially important when addressing the constitutionality of a statute. Statutes are presumed constitutional; it is a very high bar to hold otherwise. Moreover, when the constitutionality of a statute is challenged, the Attorney General must be notified and provided with an opportunity to defend the statute.

Judge Quinn, however, in the context simply of sentencing people convicted of felonies, ruled the law unconstitutional without prompting, without the question having been raised by either party, and with no notice to the Attorney General, the Secretary of State, or other appropriate authorities. But a sentencing court has no discretion whatsoever over voting rights: only the Legislature decides when the right to vote may be restored, and the court plays no role. Voting rights are not up for debate in a criminal sentencing.

Attorney General Ellison additionally argues that Judge Quinn is wrong on the law and that the Restore the Vote law is in fact constitutional.

The Minnesota Constitution is clear: people with felony convictions cannot vote “unless otherwise restored to civil rights.” The Minnesota Supreme Court has made it clear this phrase means the government can restore rights through legislation. The Supreme Court affirmed that principle just this year in an important case called Schroeder v. Simon.

For more than 150 years, the Minnesota Legislature has decided when and how to restore voting rights to people who have served their sentences for felony convictions. Every time in that the Legislature has revised the mechanism for restoring felon voting rights, it has expanded those rights. The Restore the Vote Act the Legislature passed this year is firmly in that long tradition and is entirely constitutional.

The four documents Attorney General Ellison’s office has filed at the Court of Appeals are:

The Court of Appeals is expected to act quickly on the writs of prohibition.