Federal authorities are investigating allegations that California and its courts are unlawfully denying voting rights to some intellectually disabled residents, according to documents released Wednesday.
Attorneys for the U.S. Department of Justice in Sacramento have requested records from Secretary of State Alex Padilla and Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye including the number of people disqualified from voting and policies for allowing residents in limited conservatorships to vote.
The probe was launched in response to a complaint by an advocacy group, called the Disability and Abuse Project.
"In particular, the complaint alleges that the Los Angeles Superior Court has deprived persons with disabilities of their right to vote by finding such persons are not capable of completing an affidavit of voter registration, without applying objective standards or fully investigating voter competency issues," according to a letter to state officials by Assistant U.S. Atty. Vincente A. Tennerelli.
The complaint also alleges that once a superior court determines a person is not capable of registering to vote, the person is removed from voting rolls and not allowed other attempts to register, and no further review is conducted, Tennerelli said in the May 15 letter.
"We are working on this matter with the Civil Rights Division for the U.S. Department of Justice,'' said Lauren Horwood, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Sacramento.
Although the complaint centers on Los Angeles courts, Tennerelli wrote that "we find the allegations to be of concern throughout the state of California as they involve the state's election code and statewide policies, practices and procedures."
Those affected by the policy include people with cerebral palsy, autism spectrum disorder, traumatic brain injury and other intellectual or developmental disabilities, according to Kara Janssen, an attorney for the group Disability Rights Advocates.
"It's great that the Department of Justice is looking into this," she said, adding that it may get the state to review and improve its policies.
The Judicial Council, which oversees courts in California, will provide the documents requested, according to spokesman Peter Allen.
"The view here is that the Chief [Justice] and Judicial Council are committed to the civil rights of all Californians," Allen said in an email.
Nora J. Baladerian, director of the Disability and Abuse Project, said that about two years ago the organization was approached by family members of those under conservatorships who encountered issues with the Los Angeles Superior Court.
The group found that people with developmental disabilities who came into contact with the limited conservatorship system were denied proper legal assistance by court-appointed lawyers and denied their right to vote, among other issues, she said. Those who were denied their right to vote also were powerless to advocate on their own behalf because of their disabilities, Baladerian said.
"It is patently unlawful," she said.
The group filed the complaint in July. The investigation was opened last week.
"Naïve me. I thought in the courtroom the law was followed," Baladerian said. "It wasn't so. The rights of individuals with disabilities were not being upheld in court."