Budget brinksmanship leaves last-minute bills in doubt

FILE- In this Jan. 15, 2019, file photo an America flag flies at the Pennsylvania Capitol building in Harrisburg, Pa. In Pennsylvania, good fiscal times may not necessarily mean good fiscal condition. The rage in the state Capitol right now is the surplus that state government rolled up in the almost-ended fiscal year, helped by unexpectedly strong corporate and sales tax collections. That news alone is fueling requests from a legion of lobbyists with pet projects, but the momentary surplus has not necessarily changed views from the outside that Pennsylvania is a state with tall fiscal challenges. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

HARRISBURG — The courts will have the final say, but voters spoke overwhelmingly in favor of a proposal to add a Victim’s Bill of Rights to the state Constitution on Tuesday.

Over 73 percent of voters supported the proposal to add the Victim’s Bill of Rights to the Constitution according to unofficial returns — the state is barred by a court order from officially tabulating the results until a legal challenge filed by the League of Women Voters and the American Civil Liberties Union is resolved.

“Amending the state constitution is never something that is done lightly; it is only revised when it has been established that the rights of one group have been hindered by the government and that we, as a state, value those rights enough to ensure that it never happens again,” Jennifer Storm, Pennsylvania’s Victim Advocate said Tuesday. “Crime victims deserve constitutional protections and I am honored to cast this historic vote on behalf of crime victims.”

Marsy’s Law proponents claimed victory around 10:30 p.m., Tuesday.

Pennsylvania now joins Nevada, Oklahoma, Kentucky, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Ohio, California, Illinois, North Dakota, Montana and South Dakota in passing Marsy’s Law, according to the Marsy's Law campaign.

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.

“This is a great day for victims of crime in Pennsylvania. Voters have shown that they care deeply about equal rights for crime victims,” Henry Nicholas said. “It is a testament to the power of our cause and the strength of our movement.”

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.

The League of Women Voters and the ACLU sued last month to stop the Marsy’s Law Victim’s Bill of Rights, arguing 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 are intended to help victims of crime, so there’s no need to separate them into different ballot questions.

Commonwealth Court Judge Ellen Ceisler ruled last week that the state shouldn’t tabulate or certify the results of the ballot question until after the courts determine the merits of the legal challenge. Monday, the state Supreme Court declined to overturn Ceisler’s order.

In that 4-3 decision, the majority of the justices indicated that since the votes will be counted if the League of Women Voters and the ACLU lose the lawsuit, no one is being disenfranchised by having the state hold off on officially counting the results.

In her decision, Ceisler concluded that allowing the Victim’s Bill of Rights to become part of the Constitution “will have an immediate, profound and, in some case irreversible consequences on the constitutional rights of accused and in the criminal justice system.”

Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Saylor wrote a dissenting opinion that indicated that he would have reversed Ceisler’s order and allowed the state to immediately certify the results of the ballot question vote. But in that opinion, Saylor noted that he was “given pause by some of the substantive analysis,” in Ceisler’s opinion, he disagreed with her move.

CNHI PA State Reporter

CNHI State Reporter John Finnerty covers the Pennsylvania Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Follow him on Twitter @cnhipa. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com.

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