HARRISBURG — While it’s unclear when or if the votes will be counted, voters will be asked on Tuesday to decide whether to add a Victim’s Bill of Rights to the state Constitution.
A Commonwealth Court judge ruled last week that the state shouldn’t count the votes until after a legal challenge filed by the League of Women Voters and The American Civil Liberties Union is settled. The groups have argued that the changes included in the proposed constitutional amendment would impact multiple other constitutional rights and that, as a result, all the changes should not be covered by one ballot question.
Advocates for the change say that all of the reforms fall under the single subject of victims’ rights and they hope that the state Supreme Court will step in Monday to lift the injunction and allow the votes to count. Attorney General Josh Shapiro on Thursday filed an appeal to the Supreme Court asking the justices to intervene before the election on Tuesday.
The change is needed because under existing law, victims have no recourse if they feel like they’re being overlooked by the criminal justice system, said Pennsylvania’s victim advocate Jennifer Storm.
“Victims' rights are not enforced,” she said. “We have rights without a remedy” if those rights aren’t considered in court.
The effort to enshrine the rights of victims in the state Constitution is part of a Marsy’s Law national campaign launched by billionaire Henry Nicholas after the 1983 murder of his sister, Marsalee Nicholas.
The Victim's Bill of Rights proposed in Marsy’s Law would mandate that victims receive notice about court hearings and the release or escape of the accused, protection from the accused, prompt conclusion to the prosecution of the case and the right to confer with prosecutors, according to a summary of the law prepared by legislative staff.
Marsy’s Law has been passed in 11 states, said Jennifer Riley, state director of the Marsy’s Law campaign in Pennsylvania. Voters in six states — Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Nevada, and Oklahoma — added Marsy’s Law amendments to their constitutions in 2018, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The campaign funded by Nicholas has spent millions to convince voters to support the proposed ballot initiative, state campaign finance records show.
The Marshall Project, a New York-based non-profit news organization focused on criminal justice issues, reported that Nicholas had spent more than $25 million nationally pushing for Marsy’s Law.
Pennsylvania campaign finance reports show that the effort had spent $3.73 million on the campaign in this state, through Oct. 21. An Oct. 22 filing shows that the state campaign got an additional $400,000 by the California-based Marsy’s For All Foundation.
Other states have language protecting the rights of victims in their constitutions, but in many cases those protections existed before the Marsy’s Law campaign launched. In all, 35 protect victims’ rights in their constitutions, Storm said.
Riley said that while the campaign was founded by Nicholas, its support is now much broader.
“It has grown so much bigger than one person,” she said. Gov. Tom Wolf has backed Marsy’s Law, a position he reiterated at a Thursday press conference. Attorney General Josh Shapiro has supported it, as well, and the legislation putting the question on the ballot passed the General Assembly twice, with bipartisan support, she said.
In her ruling on Wednesday, Commonwealth Court Judge Ellen Ceisler determined that the legal challenge by the League of Women Voters and the ACLU had a good chance of prevailing.
The proposed amendment would have “immediate, profound, and in some instances, irreversible consequences on the constitutional rights of the accused and in the criminal justice system,” she wrote in her decision.
The ACLU welcomed Ceisler’s ruling, saying it reaffirmed the importance of following the Constitution while trying to amend it.
“Despite the heated rhetoric, rather than help crime victims, the Legislature failed them in this process,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. “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.”
Storm said that if the problems predicted by the ACLU were likely, they would have come to light in the other states that already have victims' rights enshrined in their constitutions.