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- Proposed constitutional amendment would expand rights of crime victims
- Attorneys say amendment is too broad, jeopardizes right to fair trials
One of the highest profile election initiatives in recent years is an effort to add a "victims' rights" amendment to the Pennsylvania State Constitution.
On Tuesday, voters statewide will be asked to consider a proposed "Crime Victims' Rights" amendment.
The ballot initiative has been dubbed "Marsy's Law" and is part of a nationwide campaign being supported by a California billionaire philanthropist.
Supporters say "Marsy's Law" ensures that crime victims understand their rights and have a voice when someone who committed a crime against them is eligible for parole or pardon.
But opponents have called the proposed constitutional amendment "unnecessary" and some argue it undermines the American justice system.
The so-called "Marsy's Law" initiative is named for Marsy Nicholas, who was a senior at the University of California at Santa Barbara when she was stalked and murdered in 1983.
In 2007, Nicholas' brother, Henry Nicholas III, led a successful effort in California to pass a constitutional amendment dubbed "Marsy's Law."
Nicholas was the co-founder of Broadcom Corp., a semi-conductor company that made products for the computer and telecommunications industries and was listed on the Fortune 500. In 2018, Forbes magazine estimated Nicholas' net worth at $3 billion.
Voters in 11 other states have since passed similar constitutional amendments with financial support from Nicholas and other donors.
Actor Kelsey Grammar of "Cheers" and "Frasier" fame has served as a national spokesman for the campaign, and his voice has been heard in Pennsylvania on TV commercials and telephone calls urging voters to approve the amendment.
The Pennsylvania ballot initiative would give crime victims the constitutional right to refuse requests by defendants that they produce requested documents before a trial; require police departments to inform crime victims of their legal rights; allow crime victims the right to be represented by their own attorney, rather than a prosecuting attorney; and require the state to notify crime victims whenever their accused offender is granted a parole hearing.
Marsy's Law has the support of many elected officials in Pennsylvania, including U.S. Sens. Bob Casey Jr. and Pat Toomey; Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf; Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro; and Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr., as well as the Pittsburgh-based Center for Victims.
But a number of groups have criticized "Marsy's Law" efforts, which are underway across the United States and are being funded largely by the Nicholas family.
The American Civil Liberties Union says Marsy's Law undermines a defendant's right to due process and can hamper their effort to defend themselves from criminal charges.
Attorneys argue that under Marsy's Law victims could refuse to be interviewed or turn over pertinent evidence that could clear a defendant of charges.
What's more, in California, critics say that Marsy's Law has extended prison sentences and reduced the number of inmates granted parole.
The League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania has sued to block the Marsy's Law ballot initiative, arguing that the question voters are being asked to consider is too broadly worded.
The LWV says that although the state constitution requires that amendments be limited to a single issue, Marsy's Law would alter nine different provisions of the constitution.
The LWV argues that victims' rights are already protected by the state Crime Victims Act of 1998, and that the passage of Marsy's Law would create unnecessary additional costs for law enforcement officers and courts.
Last week, a state Commonwealth Court judge granted a request for an injunction barring the state from certifying any votes cast for or against the ballot question.
Implementing the constitutional amendment, wrote Commonwealth Court Judge Ellen Ceisler, would "put into doubt ... 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.”
Shapiro has appealed the judge's ruling to the state Supreme Court. The question will remain on the ballot Tuesday.
Originally published November 04, 2019.