Justices to hear argument in victims' rights amendment case in Pa.

FILE - Generic gavel on wooden table.

The fate of a constitutional amendment for victims' rights that Pennsylvania voters apparently approved overwhelmingly nearly two years ago goes before the state's highest court on Tuesday.

The state Supreme Court justices will hear oral argument in Harrisburg regarding whether the so-called Marsy's Law amendment — which has not gone into effect — should have been split into more than just one ballot question.

The court is considering whether to uphold a divided decision in January by Commonwealth Court, which ruled 3-2 that it ran afoul of a Pennsylvania Constitution provision that requires amendments to address a single subject only.

The amendment would enshrine into the Pennsylvania Constitution rights for crime victims that include notifications about their case and the right to attend and weigh in during plea hearings, sentencings and parole proceedings.

The state Supreme Court ruled shortly before the November 2019 vote that elections officials could not tabulate or certify the votes while litigation continued. Unofficial results indicate it nevertheless passed by about a 3-to-1 margin.

The case pits the League of Women Voters against the state's top ranking elections official, acting Secretary of State Veronica Degraffenreid. But the appeal is being pursued by four voters who want to see the unofficial referendum results be counted. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's administration did not appeal the January lower-court decision.

The four voters' lawyers have argued that the various pieces of the amendment all involve victims' rights. The justices are expected to focus on whether the proposed amendment would alter multiple rights under the existing constitution.

"It is indisputable that all 15 rights are exemplary rights conferred on and accorded to victims relating to or arising out of criminal proceedings," their lawyers wrote in a March brief. "Thus the only issue is are these 15 rights ‘sufficiently interrelated’ to justify placing them in one ballot question."

In throwing out the vote results in January, Commonwealth Court Judge Ellen Ceisler said the state constitution requires separate votes on distinct amendments, "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."

The four people who are seeking to have the referendum results counted and the amendment language go into force are crime victims or family members of a crime victim.



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