An Overview of Marsy’s Law: Statewide Referendum on General Election Ballot (11/5/19)

Katie Phillips Active + Engaged Residents, Advocacy, General

Marsy’s Law: Statewide Ballot Question

All Pennsylvania voters will see a question on their ballot on Tuesday about Marsy’s Law, a proposed amendment to the state constitution about victims’ rights. In order to qualify for the ballot, Marsy’s Law was passed by the state legislature two sessions in a row. If it passes on Election Day, the constitutional amendment will be ratified.

PUMP encourages all voters to educate themselves given the issue’s overall importance in substance as well as its elevated importance as a proposed amendment to the PA state constitution.  The proposed amendment has also attracted considerable controversy and is the source of a pending lawsuit challenging its constitutionality.

Background

A version of Marsy’s Law was first adopted in California in 2008 with the goal of protecting the rights of victims of crimes. Many other states have also passed versions of it, but Montana and Kentucky’s state supreme courts have since found the amendment to be unconstitutional.

In Pennsylvania

The version of Marsy’s Law passed by the state legislature, which voters will consider on Nov. 5th, would enshrine the existing PA “Victims’ Bill of Rights” laws in the constitution and add a few provisions. The ballot measure would provide “15 specific constitutional rights” to crime victims (Ballotpedia). The ACLU, League of Women Voters, and others have filed a lawsuit claiming that the ballot referendum is unconstitutional. If a judge agrees, then regardless of what voters decide on Election Day, the amendment will not be ratified (WHYY).

Supporters of Marsy’s Law

Marsy’s Law for All, a national advocacy group, works to amend state constitutions “to give victims of crime rights equal to those already afforded to the accused and convicted,” such as the right to due process. Supporters argue that enshrining victims’ rights in the constitution is necessary to ensure that those rights are respected in court. Marsy’s Law for Pennsylvania is leading the effort here.

Other supporters:

  • Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape
  • Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association
  • Tom Wolf (D)
  • S. Sen. Bob Casey (D)
  • Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D)

Opponents of Marsy’s Law

Key opponents include the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the League of Women Voters, and the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (PACDL). The ACLU argues that Marsy’s Law could actually undermine the rights of people accused of crimes – primarily due process and the presumption of innocence – because it would strengthen government’s power against defendants. The PACDL points out that constitutional rights exist to protect individuals from government overreach – in a criminal case, the state “is attempting to deprive the accused – not the victim – of life, liberty, and property,” which is why defendants’ rights must be constitutionally enshrined and not victims’ rights.  The lawsuit against the amendment argues that the ballot referendum contains too many changes to the constitution, which goes against a constitutional provision limiting the number of changes that can be made with a single vote.

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