HARRISBURG — The American Civil Liberties Union and the League of Women Voters are suing to get a question creating a Victims' Bill of Rights added to the state Constitution removed from the ballot in next month’s election.
Attorneys representing the ACLU and the League of Women Voters said they believe the ballot question is unconstitutional because, while the proposal would make multiple changes to the Constitution, voters are being asked to approve them all with one question.
The suit has been filed in Commonwealth Court. The groups hope to get an injunction to remove the question before the Nov. 5 election.
Online court dockets don't indicate that any hearings on the dispute have been scheduled. Andy Hoover, a spokesman for the ACLU, said late Thursday afternoon that the organization had not been provided any timeline from the court on when the case will move forward. A spokeswoman for the Department of State declined comment when asked about the lawsuit.
Steven Bizar, an attorney representing the League of Women Voters, said the objection is that the process used by the legislature is combining too many constitutional changes into one ballot question.
“Nobody believes that the accused deserve rights that trump the rights of victims,” Barr said. But, he added, "there is a proper way to do things.”
The measure passed with bipartisan support in both chambers of the General Assembly and Gov. Tom Wolf has backed the proposal, as well.
“We are disappointed that at this late stage of the journey anyone would be opposed to ensuring the voices of victims are heard and protected in our constitution,” said Mike Straub, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster County.
The Victims' Bill of Rights proposed in Marsy’s Law would mandate that victims receive notice about court hearings and the release or escape of the accused, protection from the accused, prompt conclusion to the prosecution of the case and the right to confer with prosecutors, according to a summary of the law prepared by legislative staff.
The lawsuit is being filed on behalf of Lorraine Haw, a Philadelphia woman, whose brother was murdered and whose son is in jail for murder. Haw did not attend a Capitol press conference about the lawsuit on Thursday.
Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director of the ACLU, said Haw understands the issues involved because of her family’s connections to the role of both victim and accused.
Roper said when Haw reviewed the Marsy’s Law proposal, she concluded she’d like to support some of the changes but not all of them.
“Marsy’s Law does not give voters that choice” by combing all of the proposed changes in one ballot question, she said.
Roper said if the ACLU is successful, lawmakers would have to rework the Marsy’s Law question into separate questions from which voters would decide. Those changes would have to pass through two separate legislative sessions before it got back onto the ballot, she said.
Similar challenges have been used to halt efforts to pass Marsy’s Law constitutional changes in Kentucky and Montana, Roper said.
The question is poised to go before the voters because the General Assembly approved the ballot question in two separate legislative sessions. The bill passed in 2018 and again in June.
Jennifer Storm, the state’s victim advocate, said she’s concerned the lawsuit will create confusion for voters.
In some cases, people voting by absentee ballot may have already voted, she said. Storm said advocates hope the courts will quickly reject the lawsuit so voters get the opportunity to weigh in on the proposal next month.
John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.