Controversial victims’ rights amendment Marsy’s Law wins majority support; still faces court challenge

By: - November 5, 2019 11:00 pm

Marsy’s Law supporters protest a press conference held by the ACLU and the League of Women Voters in the state Capitol, where the groups announced legal action that would remove the proposed constitutional amendment from ballots on Nov. 5.

While official results are still pending a legal challenge, the campaign for a controversial victims’ rights amendment claimed victory in Pennsylvania Tuesday.

Marsy’s Law, as the amendment is popularly know, cannot be certified by the Department of State until the conclusion of a lawsuit — brought by the League of Women Voters and a state resident, and litigated by the Pennsylvania branch of the  American Civil Liberties Union — challenging its constitutionality.

But unofficial results on the Department’s website showed it leading 74-26 as of 10:55 p.m.with 60 percent of the vote in — results consistent across each county and with other states that have voted on the measure.

If it eventually becomes enshrined in the state’s guiding document, Marsy’s Law would provide constitutional guarantees for 15 rights that crime victims already have protected by state law, including the right to be notified of any proceeding involving their offender, and the right to be heard in proceedings such as trials, bail hearings, sentencing, and pardon reviews.

The initiative has passed in 12 states already, but subsequently overturned in two, according to Ballotpedia. Tech billionaire Henry Nicholas has poured millions of dollars into the campaign, inspired by a chance run in with the accused murder of his sister soon after the crime took place.

“This is a great day for victims of crime in Pennsylvania. Voters have shown that they care deeply about equal rights for crime victims,” Nicholas said in a statement Tuesday night. “It is a testament to the power of our cause and the strength of our movement.”

The statement made no mention of the ongoing legal challenge.

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By making them constitutional, advocates say it’ll be easier to enforce these rights if they are forgotten or ignored. The state Office of the Victim Advocate says it receives about 100 such complaints each year, all are self-reported.

But civil liberties advocates say the law will slow down the gears of justice for the accused, and could have unintended consequences, such as letting victims not comply with the evidence gathering process.

Separate from this complaints, the League of Women Voters filed its lawsuit to challenge Marsy’s Law place on the ballot in the first place. The case alleges that amendment must be divided into individual pieces for a vote, and cannot be offered as a whole.

A Commonwealth Court judge issued an injunction on Oct. 30 to prevent the state from certifying the referendum’s results until the legal questions are settled. The state Supreme Court upheld the injunction Monday in a 4-3 decision.

The challenge to Marsy’s Law will now make its way through the justice system — potentially all the way back to the state Supreme Court — for a full argument. If the challenge succeeds, then Tuesday’s vote will not matter.

If the challenge fails, then the state will certify Tuesday’s results. Based on unofficial results, it would likely become law. The initiative has typically received over 60 percent of the vote in the states where it appeared on the ballot, according to Ballotpedia.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.