Marsy’s Law votes won’t be counted, Pa. Supreme Court rules in split opinion
Pennsylvanians still have the right to cast a vote Tuesday on the proposed Marsy’s Law related to victim rights — but officials won’t be counting and sharing the results of votes on that particular measure, the state’s highest court affirmed in a split ruling Monday.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, on a 4-3 split, denied an emergency petition seeking to overturn last week’s decision by a Commonwealth Court judge to bar officials from certifying votes on the controversial, multimillion-dollar backed referendum.
Among other things, Marsy’s Law would require that crime victims be notified of an offender’s release and given standing in court for proceedings including bail hearings, parole and trials. While many of those issues are part of the Pennsylvania Crime Victim’s Act of 1998, advocates said the proposed amendment would give victims standing to demand that those rights are upheld.
Lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania argued that the proposed measure — which enumerates a variety of rights — failed to meet the state constitutional requirement that limits amendments to a single issue.
The case advanced to the Supreme Court after Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro appealed Commonwealth Court Judge Ellen Ceisler’s injunction. Shapiro contended that the referendum met constitutional muster and argued that barring a vote count could suppress balloting on the referendum and hurt voter turnout.
“Neither this order, nor the order of the Commonwealth Court, deprives any voter of the right to cast a ballot on the proposed ‘Victim’s Rights’ amendment at issue in this litigation at the upcoming Nov. 5, 2019 General Election,” Monday’s Supreme Court order said.
Chief Justice Saylor filed a dissenting statement signed by Justices Kevin Dougherty and Sallie Updyke Mundy.
Saylor wrote that he had “difficulty comprehending why the Commonwealth Court would bar a mere tabulation of duly-cast votes of the electorate.” He suggested that votes at least be tabulated even if not directly linked to the passage of the law.
Shapiro slammed the decision, which he said does a disservice to the electorate as well as victims of crime.
“I respectfully disagree with the court’s majority ruling,” Shapiro said Monday night in a statement. “The courts in this matter had a very clear opportunity — let the votes be counted; let the voters’ voices be heard. I can’t help but feel the courts have quieted the voices of the people of this Commonwealth and failed crime victims.”
Marsy’s Law has percolated through the General Assembly for two years. It passed the Legislature by large margins in two consecutive sessions and was on track to become law with voter approval.
Pennsylvania State Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm said the amendment would give victims standing in court to assert their right to be heard and notified of proceedings. She equated it to balancing the scales for victims.
Civil rights advocates, however, said they feared the proposed changes could trample on the rights of those accused of crimes prior to any conviction.
The measure is part of a national campaign that California tech billionaire Henry J. Nicholas III is underwriting to codify victims’ rights in every state constitution, with the goal of eventually amending the U.S. Constitution.
Nicholas established the Marsy’s Law for All Foundation in memory of his sister, Marsalee Nicholas. As a California college student, she was murdered in 1983 by a former boyfriend. Nicholas began his push for victims’ rights after his mother encountered Marsalee’s murderer in a grocery store a week after her daughter was killed. She did not know he had been released on bond.
In what one expert in state constitutional law called an unprecedented campaign for an amendment, Marsy’s Law for Pennsylvania has blanketed airwaves across the state with a 30-second ad featuring Emmy Award-winning actor Kelsey Grammer.
According to campaign finance reports, the Marsy’s Law Foundation spent more than $100 million in 12 states over the past 11 years since passing the first crime victims’ rights amendment in California in 2008.
Voters in 11 states have passed similar amendments. Courts in Montana and Kentucky later overturned the measure in those states.
Campaign finance records in Pennsylvania show the Marsy’s Law Foundation committed $6.4 million — both in cash and through in-kind contributions — to the campaign here as of Oct. 23.
Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, [email protected] or via Twitter .