Two prominent civil rights groups have brought an eleventh-hour challenge against Marsy’s Law, a proposed constitutional amendment that would grant crime victims greater rights in Pennsylvania.
The state chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and the League of Women Voters filed a petition in Commonwealth Court on Thursday to stop the proposed amendment from appearing before voters on the Nov. 5 general election ballot.
The amendment would inscribe Pennsylvania’s crime victim statutes in the state Constitution, giving victims a path to assert those rights in court.
Supporters say it would put victims on a level playing field with the accused. But in the petition filed Thursday, opponents argued it is unconstitutional because it affects multiple sections of the Constitution at once.
“We’ve never seen anything approaching the massive laundry list of things that is included in the Marsy’s Law proposed amendment,” Mary Catherine Roper, a staff attorney with the ACLU, said during a Thursday news conference at the state Capitol.
If the plaintiffs win this case, the ballot question may not appear on electronic ballots. If it remains on paper ballots, election officials just may not count it, says an ACLU lawyer.
— Elizabeth Hardison (@elizhardison) October 10, 2019
The ACLU has been a leading opponent of Marsy’s Law since the measure was first introduced in the General Assembly in 2017. The group argues that it would impinge on a defendant’s due process rights and potentially slow down criminal proceedings.
In the new legal challenge, the plaintiffs contend that Marsy’s Law could impact rights enshrined in as many as eight sections of the state Constitution, including articles that outline due process rights for people accused of crimes.
The ACLU also says the expansive nature of Marsy’s Law not only violates the process for amending the state Constitution, but also infringes on the rights of voters who support some, but not all, of its components, since it forces them to vote on the measure in an “omnibus” ballot question.
One of those voters is Lorraine Haw, a Philadelphia woman who joined the case as a co-plaintiff.
Haw’s brother, Peter, was murdered in a Philadelphia housing project 30 years ago, and her son is currently serving a life sentence in prison.
As a victim of a crime and as the mother of an incarcerated person, Haw “speaks from both sides” of the criminal justice system, Roper said Thursday. “She cares about victims and she cares about defendants.”
According to the petition filed Thursday, Haw “agrees with some parts of Marsy’s Law,” such as considering the safety of victims and their families at bail hearings. But she is opposed to the parts of the amendment that she believes will take away rights from defendants.
“Haw cannot vote for the parts of the amendment she agrees with without voting for other things she disagrees with,” the suit reads. “She wants to be able to vote separately on each change to the Constitution, as is her right.”
On Thursday, Pennsylvania Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm charged that the ACLU and the League of Women Voters were the ones disenfranchising voters by waiting until the month before an election to challenge a ballot question.
She said that some voters have already voted on Mary’s Law with absentee ballots, and others expect to see the ballot question when they vote on Nov. 5.
Storm also said the argument advanced by the ACLU and the League of Women Voters was not raised during more than two years of debate over the amendment, which was approved almost unanimously by the General Assembly in 2018 and 2019.
“Why did they wait so long?” Storm said Thursday. “They knew about this question for over two years. Our primary concern is confusion among the voters.”
Storm also said that she and other supporters believe it does not violate the single-subject rule of constitutional amendments, since the matter of crime victims’ rights constitutes “a single issue.”
Rep. Sheryl Delozier, R-Cumberland, who sponsored the bills that initiated the amendment process, likewise said she had not heard the single-subject concerns in two-plus years of debating the issue.
“I am assuming that because they couldn’t win on those two issues, they’re trying another route to make sure that the voters do not see this question,” Delozier said Thursday.