Pa. Supreme Court rules against Marsy’s Law; says victims’ right amendment cannot be enacted

The amendment attempted to make too many changes to the constitution at once

By: - December 21, 2021 5:06 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.

* This story was updated at 6:07 p.m. 12/21/21 with comment from the ACLU and Marsy’s Law. 

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a victims’ rights amendment to the state’s constitution, passed by voters in 2019 as a single measure, cannot be put into law as approved.

The ruling blocks Marsy’s Law, a far-reaching effort to enshrine 15 separate rights for crime victims in the commonwealth’s constitution, from taking effect.

The amendment passed the General Assembly late last decade near unanimously, and would have, in a single question, given victim’s the right to petition a judge if they were not informed about the accused’s case or did not have the ability to attend the trial or subsequent hearings. 

By forcing so many changes into a single ballot question, the proposed amendment “denied the voters of this Commonwealth their right to vote on each change separately, a sacrosanct right that provision of our organic charter of governance guarantees,” Supreme Court Justice Debra Todd wrote in the majority opinion.

The League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania filed the lawsuit against the state’s top election official, with support from the American Civil Liberties Union, ahead of the 2019 election, in which nearly three in four voters backed the proposed constitutional change. 

At the time, the state Supreme Court ruled that votes for the change would not be counted until the legal proceedings ended.

The state’s highest court heard oral arguments in September about whether the amendment would stand. 

In statement, Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said the decision prevented the legislature from doing too much at once, misleading voters in the process.

“In this year of seemingly unending attacks on our democracy, we applaud the state Supreme Court for shutting down this clear attempt by the Legislature to mislead voters,” Shuford said.

The 5-1 decision issued Tuesday also upholds a January 2021 Commonwealth Court ruling, which found that the amendment made “sweeping and complex changes” to criminal procedure with a single vote.

Those rights are already enumerated in statute in Pennsylvania’s 1998 Crime Victims Act. But Marsy’s Law would let victims ask a judge to intervene on their behalf if they think their rights have been violated. 

The amendment is part of a national effort funded by California billionaire Henry Nicholas to protect victims’ rights, which has passed similar protections in at least 10 states. 

In a statement, Marsy’s Law state director Jennifer Riley said that she was disapointed in the ruling.

“This is yet another example of how the Commonwealth does not support victims of crime,” Riley said.

In her dissenting opinion, Justice Sallie Updyke Mundy wrote that the “The changes in the proposed amendment are specifically and narrowly tailored to fulfill the singular common objective of establishing for victims of crime justice and due process,” and argued the amendment should have been approved.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is the Capital-Star's House reporter. He previously covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter. You can reach him at 845-891-4306.

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