Victim rights amendment, on hold since vote, heads to court
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A group of state judges will decide whether a victims’ rights amendment that voters apparently supported overwhelmingly in November will become part of the Pennsylvania Constitution, a court announced this week.
Commonwealth Court on Monday announced that a full panel of the court will hear oral argument in Philadelphia in March about the so-called Marsy’s Law ballot question. It would enshrine into the state constitution rights for crime victims that include notifications about the case and being allowed to attend and weigh in during plea hearings, sentencings and parole proceedings.
A closely divided state Supreme Court ruled on the eve of balloting in November that elections officials could not tabulate or certify the votes while litigation continued. Unofficial tallies indicated the ballot question passed by a three-to-one margin, according to case filings.
In a Jan. 16 brief, a group of four voters who intervened in the case urged the court to rule that the referendum met legal standards and should be added to the constitution.
“Every day that passes with the secretary (of state) being enjoined from tabulating and certifying the results of the vote on the proposed amendment is a day in which the rights set forth in Marsy’s Law — which was approved overwhelmingly by the commonwealth electorate — are denied to crime victims and their families,” lawyers for the four voters argued.
A single jurist, Commonwealth Court Judge Ellen Ceisler, issued an injunction in late October at the request of the state League of Women Voters and a registered voter.
Ceisler ruled the amendment would have profound and irreversible consequences for the rights of people accused of crimes and for the criminal justice system. She said the referendum did not fully inform voters about what it would do and that the amendment improperly combined several elements that should be voted separately.
The state’s defense attorneys’ association also warned the court in a Dec. 16 brief that the amendment would undermine the rights of the accused and that it would grant status to people as victims when the accused has not been convicted of anything.
But the four voters who support the amendment have said its provisions are sufficiently interrelated and that the vast majority of its elements are already state law.
Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, the defendant in the case, supports making the votes official, and her lawyers told Ceisler that the referendum’s various elements all related to the single purpose of advancing victims’ rights.
The Pennsylvania District Attorneys’ Association has dismissed concerns that adopting the amendment’s set of victims’ rights would create delays and other problems for court proceedings.
“It strains credulity to suggest that every guilty plea, every post-conviction hearing, every parole hearing will be frustrated and lacking finality because it could never be known that notice was properly provided to all interested victims,” the prosecutors’ group wrote in a friend-of-the-court brief.