Opponents of the Marsy’s Law amendment filed a last-minute lawsuit in Commonwealth Court on Thursday challenging the constitutionality of the question on the November ballot which asks voters to approve or reject amending the state constitution to include a crime victims rights amendment.
The question would establish more than a dozen rights and, as such, fails to meet the requirement for addressing a single subject, lawyers representing the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania and Lorrain Haw, a Philadelphia woman active in criminal justice reform efforts, said in their challenge.
Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director of the Pennsylvania ACLU and one of the lawyers in the case, said she also will seek a preliminary injunction barring the state from counting votes on the question.
The court filing follows legislative votes approving the measure in the last two legislative sessions. That standard must be met before a proposed amendment can be put on the ballot. If approved, such measures are typically added to the constitution.
The amendment would affect, among other things: the availability of bail, who can be called as witnesses, the pardons process, and the right to be free from double jeopardy. It also would reinforce various laws adopted over the last two decades giving crime victims the right to be notified of and present for court proceedings, seek restitution, offer victim impact statements in court and be notified of parole proceedings and inmate release dates.
The proposal has snared widespread support among law enforcement and victim advocates.
Pennsylvania Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm was shocked to learn of the legal challenge less than a month before the Nov. 5 election.
“They’ve known about Marsy’s Law for three years and never one word. Absentee ballots are out and people are already voting on this. … It just feels as though they are trying to disempower, disenfranchise voters,” Storm said.
Haw, the Philadelphia woman fighting the amendment, said she supports some of the rights it would establish.
“I stand for the rights of victims. But I don’t think that they should take the place of the rights of the accused. The Marsy’s Law amendment goes too far. Some of it is good — like considering the safety of victims and their families at bail hearings. But mostly it wants to take things away from people accused of crimes before they are even convicted,” Haw wrote.
Although the ACLU has long opposed the proposed amendment, Roper said the group could not file suit until members saw how the ballot measure was worded. She said the wording creates 15 new rights for victims and affects three articles in eight separate sections of the Pennsylvania Constitution.
“We should never have had to do this,” Roper said. “The Legislature knows how to do a constitutional amendment properly and they knew this was not proper.”
Storm argued otherwise.
“We’re not talking about crime victims rights and agriculture. We’re not talking about crime victims rights and voting. We’re talking about crime victims rights,” Storm said.
Jill Greene, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, said the ballot question as written ignores the right of voters to consider each proposal on its own merits.
Although Pennsylvania and many other states passed laws establishing victims rights during the 1980s and 1990s, victim advocates say constitutional amendments elevate those rights and give victims standing to assert their rights in court.
The Pennsylvania ballot question grew out of a national campaign California tech billionaire Henry J. Nicholas III is underwriting in memory of his sister, Marsy. She was stalked and murdered by an ex-boyfriend while a student at the University of California in Santa Barbara in 1983.
Nicholas’ wanted to ensure no one else ever experienced the horror his mother faced when she encountered the man who would be convicted in her daughter’s death while out on bond in a grocery store.