ACLU Sues Utah on Behalf of Disabled Adults

SALT LAKE CITY (CN) — A Byzantine law removing disabled adults’ right to counsel in guardianship proceedings targets the poorest people of Utah, the ACLU says in a federal lawsuit against the state.

The nonprofit Disability Law Center and two disabled adults sued the state, its Judicial Council and the Administrative Office of Courts, on July 6, alleging violations of the Constitution, the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Utah House Bill 101, enacted in 2016, reduce legal counsel requirements for disabled adults involved in guardianship disputes.

The Disabled Adult Guardianship Amendments state that under certain circumstances a person with disabilities defending against a petition for guardianship brought by a parent is not required to have an attorney.

If an estate of the “prospective ward” is worth less than $20,000, and other requirements are met, HB 101 says that person does not need counsel.  

“HB 101 targets the poorest Utahns with disabilities,” the 26-page lawsuit pointedly states.

“It applies only to prospective wards with less than $20,000 in net assets, meaning that the people most in need of appointed counsel will be the ones required to defend themselves.”

The plaintiffs cite the 1963 Supreme Court ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright, which called the right to independent counsel “one of the most fundamental safeguards of individual liberty.”

“Nowhere is this axiom more important than when it operates to shield the most vulnerable elements of society — groups like children, the elderly, and those with disabilities,” the lawsuit continues. “Where fundamental liberties are at stake, the Byzantine legal process cannot be fair to a person ‘unaided by counsel, and who by reason of his mental conditions stands helpless and alone before the court.’”

Alfred Pfeiffer, a partner at Latham & Watkins, and vice chairman of its global litigation and trial department, likened HB 101 to the death penalty.

“Guardianship, like prison, takes away an individual’s freedoms, including the right to travel, to marry, to vote, to have relationships, and to choose one’s home,” Pfeiffer said in a statement. “Aside from the death penalty, there is no greater deprivation of civil liberties.”

Aaron Kinikini, legal director of the Disability Law Center, echoed the call for protections.

“The Disability Law Center is a plaintiff in this suit because our members face very unique and serious threats to their liberty and independence when another person seeks legal guardianship over them,” Kinikini said in a statement. “We want to ensure that our members have absolutely every legal protection they deserve when going through the guardianship process.”

Lead counsel John Mejia, ACLU of Utah legal director, noted the lasting effects of the law.

“Once granted, guardianship is rarely, if ever, revoked,” Mejia said in a statement. “When facing the loss of the right to make deeply personal decisions for themselves for the rest of their lives, people with disabilities need to have unfettered access to legal assistance.”

The individual plaintiffs are Katherine C. and Anthony M.

Katherine, who suffers from schizophrenia, works as a junior law clerk at a nonprofit and lives with her parents due to the disability.

“Although Katherine’s parents are loving and supportive, they have expressed concern about Katherine’s ability to function autonomously,” the lawsuit states. “Katherine is deeply concerned that her parents will file to create a permanent guardianship that would deprive her of her essential liberty interests.”

Anthony, 34, has developmental and intellectual disabilities and works as a school custodian. Though he lives with his wife and son, he receives care and financial support from his parents.

Anthony, who was adopted, was severely abused while in the foster system.

His adoptive parents, the lawsuit states, believe he eventually will need a legal guardian to ensure continued care.

The defendants could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.

The plaintiffs seek an injunction prohibiting the state from implementing HB 101.

Mejia works in Salt Lake City. Pfeiffer and co-counsel Claudia Center, of the ACLU, are based in San Francisco.

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