Wednesday, January 10, 2007

"Idiots," "Insane," and the New Jersey Constitution

Via Rick Hasen comes this article, which begins:

Though it has been decades since people commonly referred to those with mental illness as "idiots" or "insane," the New Jersey Constitution still does.

A resolution introduced Monday by Senate President Richard J. Codey would remove the archaic language, inserted in 1844, by proposing a constitutional amendment. The measure would have to be approved by both houses of the Legislature and by voters in November.

"This is yet another big step toward removing the stigma of mental illness," said Codey, an ardent advocate for the mentally ill.

The source of Codey's ire is a section of the state constitution that addresses those who are eligible to vote. It states, "No idiot or insane person shall enjoy the right of suffrage."

Calling the phrasing "outdated, vague, offensive to many, and subject to misinterpretation," Codey proposed deleting "idiot or insane person" and replacing those words with "person who has been adjudicated by a court of competent jurisdiction to lack the capacity to understand the act of voting."

Luke Koppisch, a coordinator with the New Jersey Developmental Disabilities Council, which brought the idea to Codey to sponsor, said the language is insulting and had no place cemented in state law.

"It harkens back to an era when people with disabilities were treated like second-class citizens," he said.

New Jersey is not alone in its political incorrectness. According to the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington, D.C., six other state constitutions -- Arkansas, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, New Mexico and Ohio -- also contain the "idiots and insane" language pertaining to voting rights.

Codey said the fact that the language remained so long in the constitution was "a disgrace."

"Not only is it insensitive," Codey said, "but it does not take into account the individual circumstances of people with varying degrees of disabilities."

The crucial thing here, it seems to me, is not the "political correctness" of the language, but the lack of an individualized inquiry into voting competence under NJ's current constitutional provision. Kudos to Codey.


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