Judge says state can’t tally victims’ rights amendment votes
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A judge ruled Wednesday that votes in a referendum next week about enshrining victims’ rights in Pennsylvania’s constitution will not be tallied or certified while a legal challenge is pending.
Commonwealth Court Judge Ellen Ceisler issued a preliminary injunction that was requested by the voter and the state League of Women Voters who sued over the proposal.
The amendment would put into the state constitution a set of rights for victims, including to be notified about, attend and weigh in during plea hearings, sentencings and parole proceedings.
It also guarantees “a prompt and final conclusion” of the case and post-conviction proceedings and the right to full restitution.
Ceisler said she granted the injunction because the amendment would have immediate, profound and in some cases irreversible consequences for the rights of accused people and the criminal justice system. The injunction will remain in place until any appeals are over, she ruled.
“If approved by a majority of the electorate, every stage of the criminal proceedings, including bail hearings, pretrial proceedings, trials, guilty pleas, sentencing proceedings, and parole and pardon reviews, will be put into doubt,” Ceisler wrote.
The amendment is part of a national Marsy’s Law campaign for victims’ rights, named for a 1983 California murder victim.
Jennifer Riley, who runs the Marsy’s Law for Pennsylvania effort, described the decision as dismaying but said her organization was confident the election results will ultimately be certified.
The proposed amendment, which remains on Tuesday’s ballot, passed the Legislature overwhelmingly.
Reggie Shuford, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said state lawmakers mishandled the amendment process.
“Despite the heated rhetoric, rather than help crime victims, the Legislature failed them in this process,” said Shuford, whose organization helped represent the plaintiffs. “They did not hold a single hearing over two legislative sessions, and they ignored the law in proposing this massive constitutional amendment.”
The judge said the proposed amendment apparently violates the single-subject rule for amendments by providing “a whole series of new and mutually independent rights” to victims.
She also sided with the plaintiffs’ argument that the ballot question did not fairly, adequately and clearly inform voters about what the amendment would do.
“No doubt the remedy is rare; as it appears that delaying certification of the votes to a constitutional amendment has never occurred,” the judge wrote.
Supporters have said the amendment will strengthen rights already in other laws by putting them into the constitution and that it gives victims the express ability to ask a judge to enforce those rights.
During a hearing last week , lawyers for the League of Women Voters put on one witness, a criminal defense lawyer who warned the amendment would give victims the right to refuse discovery requests by the accused. He predicted that would make it more difficult for defense lawyers to get information they need to immediately start investigating social media posts, email records and text messages.
The attorney general’s office, representing the defendant, acting Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, said an injunction would confuse voters and may affect the result. Boockvar’s lawyers said the referendum’s various elements all related to the single purpose of advancing victims’ rights.
Thousands of absentee, overseas and military ballots have already been received.