Tuesday’s elections brought some surprises in parts of Pennsylvania but also some questions about the messages voters were sending. But they spoke clearly on one issue: voters want to see the rights of crime victims strengthened with an amendment to the Pennsylvania constitution.
But what the voters want will not be the final word. Monday, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled the election results on Marsy’s law can’t be certified or even officially tabulated — not until the challengers to the law have the opportunity to fully litigate the issues before a judge.
The proposal for a constitutional amendment is named after Marsalee “Marsy” Nicholas, who was killed by her ex-boyfriend in 1983. Her brother and their mother saw the killer in a grocery store after he was released on bail. No one told them he would be released.
Several states have approved Marsy’s Law, and the measure received bipartisan support from Pennsylvania lawmakers. Pennsylvania voters approved the measure by 74 percent, despite well-publicized concerns from at least two respected organizations that warned it would hurt the rights of people accused of crimes.
Supporters say the measure is necessary to ensure crime victims and their families are notified regarding bail, plea hearings, sentencing hearings and parole proceedings. It also would strengthen victims’ rights to restitution.
“This is a great day for victims of crime in Pennsylvania,” Henry Nicholas, chairman and founder of Marsy’s Law for All, said in a statement after Tuesday’s’ election. “Voters have shown that they care deeply about equal rights for crime victims.”
“Rapists, murderers, stalkers and every other accused or convicted criminal in Pennsylvania have more rights than their victims,” Jennifer Storm, Victims Advocate of Pennsylvania, noted in a PennLive op-ed earlier this year.
But the ACLU and the League of Women Voters say the proposal as written would deny people accused of crimes fundamental rights that would impact their ability to defend themselves. The organization argues Marsy’s Law would allow crime victims “to refuse an interview, deposition or other discovery request made by the accused or any person acting on behalf of the accused.”
They say no gain is worth sacrificing one’s right to discover all evidence against them.
The ACLU objects to another aspect of Marsy’s Law, which calls for “proceedings free from unreasonable delay and a prompt and final conclusion of the case and any related post-conviction proceedings.”
At least 165 people have been exonerated from our death rows, the organization notes, almost all using technologies that were nonexistent at the times of their trials and sentencings.
“Imagine even one of them not allowed to be spared execution for a wrongful conviction, simply because some arbitrary time clock had expired.”
The ACLU’s arguments didn’t persuade many voters, who clearly were moved by the pleas of victims that included glitzy marketing promotions and celebrity endorsements. But the arguments just might persuade the courts.
Concerned that voters might not fully understand the implications of Marsy’s Law, the League of Women’s Voters sued to block tabulation of the voting result.
Commonwealth Court Voters can express their sentiments, but given the legal complexities, any changes should be thoroughly litigated to ensure everyone’s right are protected. sided with the League of Women Voters and issued an injunction supporting their request that the voting results not be tabulated. So, until the lawsuit challenging the proposal is finally decided in court, there will be no constitutional amendment.
It make sense that complicated legal issues, especially those that impact individual rights, should be litigated in a court of law and not decided exclusively in an election. Courts must ensure no laws that would be enshrined in the constitution usurp or contradict other individual rights.
But it’s unfortunate the courts are compelled to take actions that might ignore election results. If the courts eventually rule against the amendment, it will do nothing to encourage voter engagement and will likely leave many voters disappointed, if not angry.
Chief Justice Thomas Saylor, in dissenting against the court’s action to block certifying Tuesday’s vote, was right to be concerned about the impact of its actions on the voters.
While the court’s actions don’t appear to have suppressed voter turnout, a concern acting Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar expressed, it most certainly threatens to sow the “confusion and uncertainty” she also warned would result.
The situation is regrettable, but unavoidable. Voters can express their sentiments, but given the legal complexities, any changes should be thoroughly litigated to ensure everyone’s right are protected.
In the final analysis, voters are to be commended for expressing their views on this important issue. Crime victims need additional protections. But the courts should have ultimate say on whether Marsy’s law becomes a constitutional amendment and does not cause more harm than good.
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