'Inappropriate, outrageous, illegal': Public defenders, AG challenge judge’s sentences prohibiting probationers from voting

Two men talk at a microphone
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, left, and Secretary of State Steve Simon, right, speak to reporters at the Capitol on Friday.
Dana Ferguson | MPR News

Posted: Oct. 19, 5:46 p.m. | Updated: Oct. 20, 4:29 p.m.

The Minnesota State Public Defender on Thursday asked an appellate court to step in and take action against a central Minnesota judge that barred at least six defendants from voting as part of their sentences, seemingly breaking with state law.

Public Defender Bill Ward, on behalf of the people sentenced by the judge, requested a writ of prohibition from the Minnesota Court of Appeals. The legal direction would vacate the orders issued by the judge and block similar actions in the future.

In this case, state law that took effect in June says that felons who serve out their time behind bars are eligible to vote once they’re released onto probation or supervised release.

Mille Lacs County District Court Judge Matthew Quinn, beginning last week, issued at least a handful of sentencing orders that included a memorandum alleging that the Legislature overstepped in passing the law allowing felons to vote after serving out their prison time. The orders stated that the law was unconstitutional.

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Ward said he hopes the court will act quickly to restore the defendants’ voting rights and to block Quinn from issuing similar sentencing conditions in future cases. 

“I've been doing this for 37 years. I've never seen the court do this before,” Ward told MPR News. “Although writs are extraordinary, it's the correct thing to do when it's clear the court did something absolutely erroneous and of his own volition without guidance from the Supreme Court's own holdings.”

Attorney General Keith Ellison filed a memorandum of support urging the court to issue the writ.

Both Ellison and Ward argued in their filings that the circuit court judge overstepped his lawful authority in taking up an issue that didn’t come before him and by going against state law in his orders. 

“Judge Quinn's actions are inappropriate, outrageous, illegal,” Ellison said during a news conference on Friday. “He has no authority to do what he's doing, and (his actions) have no effect on the validity or the constitutionality of the law that the Legislature has passed.”

Legal experts and attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota said Quinn’s action was unprecedented and likely to be struck down in an appeal.

“It’s not only unusual, but it circumvents all the normal processes for how we adjudicate and consider these kinds of big constitutional questions,” said Mitchell Hamline school of law assistant professor Jason Marisam.

An attorney for at least one of the defendants sentenced to probation last week and barred from voting as part of that order has said he will seek an appeal. Another said his client is considering an appeal, as well.

Quinn, through a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Judicial System, declined to comment on the orders, citing state rules that prevent judges from speaking on cases that are pending and impending.

The orders first came to light earlier this week when Ellison and Secretary of State Steve Simon issued a joint statement condemning two of the sentences.

The pair of DFL officials encouraged Minnesotans with felony convictions who have served out their time behind bars to register to vote, noting that the orders were not applicable to most people.

“This does not affect anyone else in Minnesota,” Simon said Friday. “If you are a citizen of the United States, you're 18 or older, you're a resident of Minnesota, and you are not currently incarcerated. If those things apply to you, you may vote, period.”

The law change in Minnesota is estimated to affect more than 55,000 people still serving some stage of a sentence outside a jail or prison wall. And voting rights groups have spent months raising awareness about the policy and encouraging Minnesotans to register to vote once they become eligible.

Quinn was first appointed to the 7th Judicial District by then-Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, in 2017. He was elected to continue serving in 2018; his term expires in January 2025. The Minnesota Board of Judicial Standards in 2021 reprimanded Quinn over social media posts and an appearance he made in a boat parade supporting former President Donald Trump.