A divided state appeals court ruled 3-2 Thursday that a proposed Victims' Bill of Rights was passed illegally because too many changes were bundled in one ballot question.
Voters approved a statewide ballot question in 2019, with 73% of voters voting in favor of it, which would have added the Victims’ Bill of Rights to the state Constitution. In Thursday’s ruling, the Commonwealth Court barred the Department of State from officially counting the votes cast on that ballot question.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the League of Women Voters sued to stop the law from taking effect, arguing that the process by which it was put before the voters was flawed.
The groups argued that the proposed amendment should have been offered to voters as a series of questions instead of just one. Proponents have argued that all of the proposed changes fall are intended to help victims of crime, so there’s no need to separate them into different ballot questions.
The Victim’s Bill of Rights was dubbed Marsy’s Law, in honor of Marsaelee Nicholas, a California woman killed in 1983.
The proposal would have enshrined 15 victim’s rights in the Constitution, including things like having the safety of the victim considered when bail for an accused person is set, that victims be notified of court proceedings, that victims be alerted when an accused person is released or escapes, that victims’ possessions be returned to them promptly when they are no longer needed as evidence, and that victims be given “full and timely restitution.”
“Because the constitution mandates a separate vote on each proposed constitutional amendment, and the proposed amendment fails to satisfy this mandate, disenfranchisement will occur if the electorate must vote on the proposed amendment as a unitary proposal,” wrote Judge Ellen Ceisler in support of throwing it out.
Judge Patricia McCullough said the proposed amendment “simply embraces too many disparate matters to effectively convey its import to voters within the 75 words mandated by statute.”
In a two-judge dissent, Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt said there was “only speculation” offered about the effect of the amendment on defendants’ rights and the legal system.
Leavitt said that in rejecting the proposed changes to the state Constitution, the other judges didn’t really explore whether or how those changes were related to one another, “which is necessary before it can be concluded that the ballot question required more than a single vote.”
The Victims' Bill of Rights was approved by both chambers of the General Assembly and approved by the voters. Noting that the state Constitution says “power is inherent in the people,” Leavitt concluded that rejecting Victims' Bill of Rights “deprives the people of this power on the strength of no more than speculation.”
Pennsylvania Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm said she was disappointed by the decision.
“The voices of victims are diminished far too often in the criminal justice and court systems,” she said. “Now is the time to create equality and balance within the very fabric that defines how justice is achieved,” she said.
Reggie Shuford of the ACLU said that the measure would have tipped the scales unfairly against people accused of crimes and it would have done so by bundling changes illegally instead of having voters decide on the merits of each.
“Marsy’s Law is flawed policy that was passed in a flawed manner,” Shuford said. “If implemented, this amendment would tip the scales of the criminal legal system even further against people who are accused of crimes, who are facing the full weight of the state that is trying to deprive them of their liberty,” he said.