Judge blocks Pennsylvania elections officials from tallying Nov. 5 votes on Marsy’s Law

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.

A Commonwealth Court judge on Wednesday blocked Pennsylvania election officials from tallying votes on Marsy’s Law, a proposed constitutional amendment that would create new rights for crime victims.

Voters will still be able to cast ballots on the amendment in the general election on Nov. 5.

But the injunction granted by Judge Ellen Ceisler on Wednesday will prevent election officials from counting those votes while a legal challenge to the amendment works its way through Pennsylvania’s appellate courts —  a process that could last years. 

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which filed the challenge to Marsy’s Law on behalf of the League of Women Voters and an individual voter, says the amendment is unconstitutional because it combines multiple changes to the state Constitution in a single ballot measure.

The injunction the ACLU secured will prevent the law from taking effect while the group challenges the constitutionality of the amendment in court. 

Leaders of the Marsy’s Law campaign said they were “dismayed” by Ceisler’s ruling, calling it a “disservice” to crime victims and voters across the state.

But Jennifer Riley, state director for Marsy’s Law campaign, expressed confidence that the ACLU’s legal challenge would not succeed, and that “the court will ultimately rule in favor of certifying the election results.”

Pennsylvania’s official victim advocate, Jennifer Storm, urged Pennsylvanians to still vote “yes” on Nov. 5.

“Seeking justice for crime victims has always been an uphill battle. Challenges were, and continue to be, expected,” she said on Twitter. “This is why it is vitally important that each & every Pennsylvania voter goes to the polls on November 5 and votes YES to #MarsysLaw.”

The push to amend Marsy’s Law into Pennsylvania’s state Constitution is part of a multi-million dollar, nationwide campaign. 

The amendment would give crime victims 15 constitutional rights in Pennsylvania, including the right to privacy, 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. 

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

The Legislature has passed Marsy’s Law twice with near unanimity. In a statement Wednesday, House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said he was “extremely disappointed the Commonwealth Court would take this opportunity away from the people of Pennsylvania.”

“For four years issues with the legislation were worked on in meetings, hearings and on the floor of the House and Senate. Concerns were addressed, and compromises were reached,” Cutler said. “At all times, those of us working on Marsy’s Law kept the words, messages and emotions of victims at the heart of everything we did.”

The proposal enjoyed broad bipartisan support, despite objections from groups like the ACLU, which warned its provisions would clog the gears of Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system. 

Longtime criminal defense attorney Ronald Greenblatt testified in Commonwealth Court on Oct. 23 that the law could create significant slowdowns in trial proceedings and potentially obstruct the collection of evidence. 

He said that would jeopardize the constitutional rights of criminal defendants, who are guaranteed fair and speedy trials under the state and federal constitutions. 

Ceisler seemed sympathetic to those concerns in the opinion she issued Wednesday.

The judge painted a picture of a criminal justice system completely transformed by Marsy’s Law, writing that “every stage of the criminal proceedings,” from bail hearings and trials to sentencing and pardon reviews, would be “put into doubt” by its provisions.

“It is clear that the proposed amendment … will immediately, profoundly, and irreparably impact individuals who are accused of crimes, the criminal justice system as a whole, and most likely victims as well,” Ceisler wrote. 

Public defenders and the ACLU have warned of these scenarios for the past two years. Supporters of the amendment accused the civil liberties group of acting in bad faith when it launched the legal challenge less than a month before the Nov. 5 election.

But in a statement on Wednesday, the leader of the state ACLU said many of these arguments should have emerged in public hearings, where lawmakers would have been able to receive expert testimony about the implementation of the proposed amendment. 

The Legislature’s failure to hold hearings, he said, gave opponents no choice but to fight the amendment through the courts. 

“Despite the heated rhetoric, rather than help crime victims, the Legislature failed them in this process,” Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU-PA, said in a statement. “They did not hold a single hearing over two legislative sessions, and they ignored the law in proposing this massive constitutional amendment. They knew better, and they should have done better.”

Your guide to Pennsylvania’s Nov. 5 general election