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Wolf Takes State Out Of Appeal Over Victim Rights Amendment

Bret Hartman
AP Images for Marsy'
Marsy Nicholas was murdered in 1983 and Marsy's Law is named in her honor.

Pennsylvania's governor has opted to stay out of the appeal of a court decision last month that struck down a constitutional amendment on victims’ rights, but a group of the proposal's supporters is moving ahead without him.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf let the Monday deadline pass without filing an appeal of Commonwealth Court's divided decision that the so-called Marsy's Law state constitutional amendment bundled too many changes.

The amendment received overwhelming support from Pennsylvania voters in November 2019, but those results have never been certified because of the legal challenge filed by the state chapter of the League of Women Voters.

The league successfully blocked the voting results, then won in Commonwealth Court last month. Until this week, the Wolf administration had defended the referendum, arguing the amendment’s changes all related to a single purpose of advancing victims’ rights.

Wolf’s office issued a statement that said he supports crime victims’ rights to “equity and assured participation" but has issues with the measure as proposed.

“After a thorough reading of the Commonwealth Court’s ruling, the administration supports efforts to achieve constitutional protections for victims through an amendment that better aligns with the constitution’s procedural requirements,” according to the statement emailed by Wolf press secretary Lyndsay Kensinger.

The office of Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro indicated it was the governor's decision to not appeal.

“Attorney General Shapiro fully supports Marsy’s Law and intends to weigh in with the court, in his capacity as attorney general, as the case continues through the legal process,” his spokesperson, Jacklin Rhoads, said in an email Tuesday.

The amendment provides for the rights of crime victims, including notifications about their cases and being allowed to attend and weigh in during plea hearings, sentencings and parole proceedings. Opponents warn it could create chaos in the court system, compromising legal protections for defendants in criminal proceedings.

“For the governor to just walk way is, to me, appalling — that he’s not wiling to fight for what our voters wanted,” Rep. Sheryl Delozier, R-Cumberland, a prime legislative sponsor of the amendment, said Tuesday. “As a united front we certainly would stand together better.”

Four voters who support the measure appealed to the state Supreme Court on Jan. 22. Their legal costs are being underwritten by a national organization that has been pushing states to adopt a version of Marsy's Law.

“Now it hasn’t been counted and certified because of the proceedings, but everybody knows 74% of the voters voted in favor of this, and they very much voted in favor of this because it protects the rights of victims in criminal cases," said lawyer David Pittinsky, who represents the four.

In throwing out the results last month, Judge Ellen Ceisler said the amendment put too many changes together.

“Because the constitution mandates a separate vote on each proposed constitutional amendment, and the proposed amendment fails to satisfy this mandate, disenfranchisement will occur if the electorate must vote on the proposed amendment as a unitary proposal,” Ceisler wrote.

But in a dissent, Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt said the decision prevents people from expressing their political will “on the strength of no more than speculation.”

A spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which is helping represent the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, said Tuesday that the amendment's problems rest with the lawmakers who wrote and passed it, as required, in two successive two-year sessions before the referendum was held.

“The Legislature disenfranchised voters by presenting too many changes to the constitution in one question," said the ACLU's Andy Hoover.