Split Court Tosses Pennsylvania Victims' Rights Amendment

Jan 7, 2021

A victims’ rights constitutional amendment that Pennsylvania voters apparently passed by a wide margin was thrown out Thursday by a divided state court that ruled it bundled too many changes together.

Commonwealth Court in a 3-2 decision said state officials may not tabulate the votes for the so-called Marsy's Law amendment that was on the ballot in November 2019.

The majority agreed with the state League of Women Voters, which sued Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar to keep the election results from being counted. The judges said it ran afoul of a Pennsylvania Constitution provision that requires amendments to address a single subject only.

“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,” wrote Judge Ellen Ceisler in support of throwing it out.

Judge Patricia McCullough said the proposed amendment “simply embraces too many disparate matters to effectively convey its import to voters within the 75 words mandated by statute.”

But in a two-judge dissent, Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt said there was “only speculation” offered about the effect of the amendment on defendants' rights and the legal system.

She said the decision keeps people from expressing their political will.

“The judgment the court enters today deprives the people of this power on the strength of no more than speculation," she wrote.

The executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, Reggie Shuford, whose lawyers helped represent the plaintiffs, said the amendment would have tipped the scales against criminal defendants.

“In its haste to score cheap political points, the Legislature passed this proposal in clear violation of the procedures required by the constitution,” Shuford said.

The state director of Marsy’s Law for Pennsylvania, a private organization that advocated for passage of the measure, said it had broad public support. The group, which was a party to the case, plans to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

“Each day without victims’ rights is a day that guarantees a victim’s voice is lost in the legal process,” said the director, Jennifer Riley.

A spokesperson for Boockvar and the Department of State, Wanda Murren, said the decision was being reviewed but had no further comment. The state district attorney's association said the deck is often stacked against crime victims, and that it strongly disagreed with the decision.

The amendment would have enshrined 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.

The state Supreme Court, also divided, ruled just before the November 2019 vote that elections officials could not tabulate or certify the votes while litigation continued. Unofficial tallies showed it passed by about a three-to-one margin, according to case filings.

Boockvar's lawyers argued the votes should have counted, saying the amendment's changes all related to a single purpose of advancing victims’ rights.