ACLU of PA, Others File Lawsuit Over Marsy’s Law Ballot Question
When Pennsylvania voters head to the voting booths in November, in addition to selecting candidates for office, they’ll also be asked to vote on Marsy’s Law. But the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania says that ballot question is unconstitutional.
Marsy’s Law is a proposed amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution that would establish a crime victim’s Bill of Rights. But those who filed the lawsuit say the ballot question combines too many changes into a single amendment.
“It’s an omnibus Bill that amends three different articles, eight different sections, and one schedule to the Pennsylvania constitution,” says Steven Bizar, a lawyer at Dechert LLP.
Philadelphia-based law firm Dechert LLP filed a lawsuit Thursday to stop the Marsy’s Law ballot question from being included on this year’s ballot sheet. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, and a resident, Lorraine Haw, who both are opposed to the Marsy’s Law Bill. The lawsuit states residents should be allowed to vote on each change made to the constitution. The plaintiffs argue this ballot question changes too much with just one amendment
“The Pennsylvania constitution should not be sacrificed on the alter of scoring political points. There’s a proper way to do things, this Bill, this ballot question doesn’t do it,” Bizar says.
The lawsuit cites Article 11, Section 1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, that states when more than one amendment is being considered, they need to be voted on separately. The plaintiffs argue Marsy’s Law makes sweeping changes, requiring voters to vote all or nothing.
“Whatever one believes about Marsy’s Law, legislators proposed a fatally flawed constitutional amendment. The court should force the legislature to go back to the drawing board so that voters can consider these proposals one at a time, as required by the constitution,” says Reggie Shuford, Executive Director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
The lawsuit was filed against acting Secretary of State Kathy Bookvar. The plaintiffs argue the question itself that voters will see on the ballot is too vague. They make the argument that the Marsy’s Law Bill is more than 500 words, but the ballot question narrow the proposed amendment down to 73 words. There is a limit of 75 words for a ballot question.
The individual plaintiff in this case, Lorraine Haw, has lost two family members to murder. Her brother was murdered, and her son was convicted of felony murder, and is now spending life without parole behind bars. Mary Catherine Roper, an ACLU lawyer representing Haw, says her client wants to be able to choose which provisions of Marsy’s Law to approve and disapprove.
“When we talked, and when she wrote a declaration for this case, what she said was ‘I like some of the things in Marsy’s Law. But I don’t like the other things. I want to be able to vote on the changes I believe in, without taking the changes I don’t believe in’,” Roper says.
Marsy’s Law would make sure the victim of a crime is notified of anything that happens in their case, whether it’s a court proceeding, if the accused is released, etc. Pennsylvania House Representative Sheryl Delozier (R- Cumberland) says currently, this doesn’t always happen.
“Every step of the way, the defendant is notified as to what happens, whether it’s the court appearance, whether it’s the parole, whether it’s probation, whatever it is that is happening in the case, the defendant is obviously notified. The victim of the case is not always notified,” Rep. Delozier explains.
It would also allow a Judge to ask where the victim stands in regards to the case. Under current law, the victim doesn’t have a right to be heard, so a Judge wouldn’t usually get their opinion.
“Now a Judge can actually say in the court proceeding, where does the victim stand, and that is a right question to be asking, because that victim should have the ability to say how they feel about what is being said,” says Rep. Delozier.
Marsy's Law has been passed in eleven states: California, Illinois, North Dakota, South Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Florida, Kentucky, Nevada, Georgia and North Carolina. It's named after Marsalee (Marsy) Nicholas, who was stalked and killed by her ex-boyfriend in 1983. Just days after she was murdered, Marsy’s family was in the grocery store when they were confronted by the accused murderer. Marsy’s family was not notified that he was released on bail.
“The voters will have a choice to say whether or not a victim will have the ability to be notified in a process,” Rep Delozier says.
Advocates of Marsy’s Law are calling the ACLU, an organization that protects civil liberties, “hypocritical,” and say the group is “disenfranchising civil liberties of crime victims.”
“The ACLU is effectively trying to stop voters from having a voice in whether or not we as Pennsylvanians value crime victims rights enough to elevate them to our constitution,” says Jennifer Riley, a State Director for Marsy’s Law.
Since Marsy’s Law is a proposed amendment to the constitution, the Bill needed to pass the state Legislature in two different sessions, then be presented to the residents for a vote. Most recently, the Bill unanimously passed the state Senate 50-0. Now, it’s up to the voters in Pennsylvania to either approve or vote down the proposed amendment.
“Marsy’s Law is an effort to elevate crime victims’ rights to our constitution. It gives victims standing. It allows victims to have a participatory voice in the criminal justice process,” Riley says.
If a Judge rules in favor of the ACLU, the ballot question could be removed, or the Bill itself could be declared unconstitutional.