Commonwealth Court Declares 2019 “Marsy’s Law” Proposed Amendment Unconstitutional, Invalidates Votes Cast

Our readers may remember that in the Fall of 2019, we published two blog articles recommending a “No” vote on the Marsy’s Law ballot question which, in very broad terms, would have had the effect of substantially expanding victim’s rights in the criminal justice system. For a more detailed recap of the ballot question, the effects it would have had, and some of the constitutional deficiencies with its enactment, you can check out our previous article on the topic here. Not long after our previous article was published, the Commonwealth Court issued a preliminary injunction preventing the Secretary of the Commonwealth from tabulating and certifying the results pending the outcome of the litigation.

The Commonwealth Court recently issued a decision on the merits of the litigation and declared that the proposed amendment violated Article XI, Section 1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. Accordingly, the Court declared the votes cast on the proposed amendment in the November 2019 general election invalid and ordered the Secretary of the Commonwealth not to tabulate or certify any of those votes. Article XI, Section 1 requires, in part, that proposed amendments to the PA Constitution “shall be submitted to the qualifies electors of the State” and that “[w]hen two or more amendments shall be submitted, they shall be voted on separately,” referred to as the separate vote and single-subject requirements. The Commonwealth Court pointed out that “the process outlined in Article XI, Section 1 ‘was not designed to effectuate sweeping, complex changes to the Constitution.’” 578 M.D. 2019, 15 (2020)(internal citation omitted).

The Court went on to identify that the proposal would effect at least the following constitutional provisions: Article I, Section 14 (general right of the accused to bail); Article IV, Section 9 (Governor’s power to commute sentences and grant pardons); and Article V (Supreme Court’s power to prescribe rules governing practice, procedure, and conduct of all courts). The Court then held that:

The Proposed Amendment impermissibly extends new powers to the General Assembly in violation of the Constitution and facially and substantially amends multiple existing constitutional articles and sections pertaining to multiple subject matters that are not sufficiently interrelated to be voted upon as a single constitutional amendment. Id. at 16.

The crux of the decision was that the electorate was prevented from voting “yes” to the amendments they approved of and “no” to the amendments which they disapproved of. However, the Court should be commended for recognizing the far wider detrimental impact that the proposed amendment would have wrought on the rights of the accused if it became law:

The Proposed Amendment appears to turn Article I on its head, enabling victims, and possibly witnesses, to prevent individuals accused of crimes from asserting their fundamental constitutional rights to defend themselves. Id. at 23.

While the expansion of victim’s rights seems a noble cause, it should never come at the cost of the rights of the accused. For those who think otherwise, remember that you don’t need to be guilty to be accused. Consider what rights you might need to to prove your innocence against the full force of the state. It remains to be seen if this decision will be appealed but it seems likely.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania brought this challenge and you can find a full copy of the decision and other court documents on their website.

If you believe that any of your rights have been violated by an unconstitutional law, contact us immediately to discuss your legal options!

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