PA Supreme Court Strikes Down Constitutional Amendment

Best Lawyers weighs in on the recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision to strike down on "Marsy's Law" and what that could mean for victim's rights around the state.

PA Supreme Court Decision on Marsy's Law

Gregory Sirico

April 28, 2022 09:00 AM

On December 21, 2021, in a 6-1 ruling, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down “Marsy’s Law,” a victims’ rights amendment initially enacted in 2009, which was expected to have added a significant number of new provisions to Article I of the state’s constitution in the following months. Marsy’s Law, which was named after Marsalee Nicholas, a California college student who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in 1983, was at the top of Pennsylvania’s legislative list going into 2021.

The amendment clarifies the definition of the term “victim” by including those directly affected by the crime as well as any “spouse, parent, grandparent, child, sibling, grandchild or guardian, and any person with a relationship to the victim that is substantially similar to a listed relationship.” Marsy’s Law has already been proposed and adopted by 12 separate U.S. states, with Henry Nicholas, co-founder of Broadcom Corporation and brother of Marsy, acting as the campaign’s primary backer. Established in 2009 by Nicholas himself, Marsy’s Law for All LLC is a national organization dedicated to the advocation of Marsy’s Law, allocating roughly $6.85 million a year to their awareness efforts alone.

In the 2019 Pennsylvania state elections, an overwhelming majority of state residents voted in favor of upholding the amendment, with an approximate count tallied at 1.8 million in favor to 600,000 against. Despite this majority vote, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and Commonwealth Court began to carry out a dismissal of the amendment entirely. Two months prior to the election, the prominent civil rights group, League of Women Voters, already began to administer petitions against the Commonwealth Court on a statewide level to permanently uphold and instate Marsy’s Law as a fixture to the constitution. Eventually, the petition led them to file a series of lawsuits against the state, claiming the dismissal of the amendment could be considered unconstitutional.

In a stark contrast, the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), long time opponents of Marsy’s Law, argued the amendment was entirely unconstitutional, claiming it prompts too many changes to the state’s constitution. Similarly, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Debra Todd described the 2019 ballot put forth to the voters of Pennsylvania as “a collection of amendments which added a multiplicity of new rights to our Constitution. The new rights were not interrelated in purpose and function, the manner in which it was presented to the voters denied them their right to consider and vote on each change separately.”

If upheld, this legislative and ballot measure would have given Pennsylvania crime victims 15 newly specified constitutional rights, including a right to carry on proceedings free of any unreasonable delays; a right to provide information that can be considered by the council of the offender; and lastly a right to refuse any interviews, depositions or other discovery requests. Going forward, Pennsylvania lawyers and lawmakers from around the state expect a wide array of spinoff claims to be filed in 2022 as victims of major criminal offenses continue to fight to make their voices heard.

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