[Michael Waterstone is the Associate Dean for Research and Academic Centers and J. Howard Ziemann Fellow and Professor of Law at Loyola Law School Los Angeles.]
This post is part of the HILJ Online Symposium: Volumes 54(2) & 55(1). Other posts in this series can be found in the related posts below.
I am grateful that the Harvard International Law Journal and Opinio Juris have asked me to write a response to The Democratic Life of the Union: Toward Equal Voting Participation for Europeans with Disabilities, written by Janos Fiala-Butora, Michael Stein, and Janet Lord
. This Article seeks to put forward “preliminary legal scholarship on equal political participation by persons with disabilities and what international human rights law requires for its attainment.” Given their various experiences as academics, international human rights lawyers, and academics, the authors are certainly well suited to this task (and I should note that two of the three are former co-authors and friends).
As I see it, this Article makes three significant points: (1) it describes Kiss
, a European Court of Human Rights decision holding that Hungary had unjustly and indiscriminately taken voting rights away from someone solely by nature of his being placed under guardianship, and critiques the decision for offering limited standards for what type of individualized inquiry is required to restrict the franchise; (2) argues that under international law, states should not be able to disenfranchise persons on the basis of disability, even in the case where individual assessments are made; and (3) challenges Martha Nussbaum’s suggestion that states should authorize guardians to vote on behalf of individuals who are neither able to form a view on political issues for themselves nor communicate their choices to others (the authors would not have a guardian exercise decisionmaking, meaning that those who cannot vote – properly construed, a small number - do not vote).
There is a lot here, worthy of a response. In this post, I will primarily address the Article’s second point. Most other rights, as the authors explain, are derivative of voting, because participation in the political process is “one of the key avenues through which marginalized groups most effectively seek equality.” Thus, what law – whether domestic or international – has to say about voting is crucial (or in the language of American constitutional law, fundamental). The Article suggests that the disenfranchisement of people with disabilities generally, and people under guardianship specifically, is a failure of law. This is no doubt correct, but I would like to suggest incomplete. Law is an important step in the process, but only a first step. The history of people with disabilities being excluded from the political process demonstrates that full inclusion (something not fully and effectively realized in any state of which I am aware) requires culture change and vigorous efforts by advocates and lawyers to implement whatever changes are able to be made under the formal scriptures of law. In that sense, this Article offers an important and cogent narrative on what the law should be. I want to suggest that future work should move forward to discuss the hard work of implementing that law.