Minnesota appeals court says Mille Lacs judge overstepped in blocking felon voting rights

Three people stand and look in a crowd
Community members take part in a rally in favor of restoring voting rights to previously incarcerated residents at the Minnesota State Capitol on Feb. 21.
Tim Evans for MPR News

The Minnesota Court of Appeals on Thursday took action against a central Minnesota judge who barred at least six defendants from voting as part of their sentences, seemingly breaking with state law.

The court granted a writ of prohibition against Mille Lacs County District Court Judge Matthew Quinn two weeks after Quinn handed down sentences that contained an identical memo calling a new voting law unconstitutional.

In the order, Chief Judge Susan Segal wrote that Quinn had no authority to declare unconstitutional the law that allows people with felony convictions to vote after they complete their prison sentences. And Segal said Quinn’s actions were “unauthorized by law.”

Two of the individuals barred from voting as part of their sentences appealed the rulings and called on the Court of Appeals to prevent Quinn from issuing similar sentences in the future.

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State Public Defender Bill Ward, Attorney General Keith Ellison, Secretary of State Steve Simon and the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota signed on in support. The court’s legal direction vacates the orders and blocks similar actions in the future.

Ellison on X, formerly Twitter, called the order great news for the state.

Welcome to all who are planning to vote,” the post read in part.

Ward told MPR News that he was encouraged by the court’s decision and felt it would send a message to other judges that weighing in on a law through sentencing is inappropriate.

The DFL-led Legislature earlier this year passed the new voter restoration law after years of unsuccessful efforts to get the measure across the finish line.

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. 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.

MPR News reporter Matt Sepic contributed to this report.