HARRISBURG - Good government advocates argued to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court today that the 2019 ballot question on constitutional rights for victims of crime, known as “Marsy’s Law,” presented voters with too many changes to the state constitution in a single question and urged the court to declare it invalid.
The League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania and an individual voter, Lorraine Haw of Philadelphia, brought the challenge, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the law firm Dechert LLP. Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, presented arguments for the League and Ms. Haw and told the justices that the state constitution prohibits the vast number of changes in a single amendment that were contained in the Marsy’s Law question.
“The state constitution gives the people of Pennsylvania the power to amend that document,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “It also ensures that voters cannot be overwhelmed with too many changes at once, proposed by an overzealous legislature. This case is about the right to vote, specifically the right of the people to consider multiple changes to the constitution as separate questions on which to vote. Instead, state lawmakers gave the voters a single choice - yes or no - on more than a dozen changes to the constitution.”
The amendment passed by the General Assembly would make at least 15 changes to the Pennsylvania Constitution on a wide variety of topics and would impact multiple sections of the constitution, from those protecting defendants’ rights to the governor’s pardon power and even the Supreme Court’s own authority to make court procedural rules.
The state Supreme Court temporarily halted the certification of the vote on the ballot question in 2019 to allow the lawsuit to proceed. In January, the Commonwealth Court agreed with the League and Ms. Haw that it is unconstitutional. In a 3-2 decision, Judge Ellen Ceisler wrote, “(A)n exhaustive search of Pennsylvania case law reveals no other amendment to a section of the Constitution that was as sweeping in scope as the Proposed Amendment.”
Ms. Haw is well-known in Philadelphia as an advocate for criminal legal reform and has experienced crime as both a murder victim’s family member and as the mother of an incarcerated son.
“I stand for the rights of victims, but I don’t think that they should take the place of the rights of the accused,” Haw said. “The Marsy’s Law amendment has some good provisions, but it also makes things even more difficult for people who have been accused of crimes. As a voter, I would have liked to have had the chance to vote for the parts I supported and vote against the parts that I opposed. But the Legislature didn’t give me that choice.”
“This case has always been about the process of amending the constitution,” said Steven Bizar of Dechert and lead co-counsel on the case. “The General Assembly does not get to play by their own rules. Each state lawmaker took an oath to uphold the constitution, and that includes following the rules when proposing amendments to the constitution, which they failed to do here.”
The League and Ms. Haw are joined in the lawsuit by Ronald Greenblatt, an attorney from Philadelphia who successfully filed to intervene.
More information about this case, League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania et al. v. Degraffenreid, is available at aclupa.org/ML-lawsuit.