Lawsuit seeks to keep victim rights question off fall ballot

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HARRISBURG, PA – MARCH 21: Airplane flys over PA State Capitol Building with a banner reading “SEN. TOOMEY DO YOUR JOB! #FILLTHESEAT” during National Day Of Action calling on Senate Republicans to “Do Your Job” and uphold their constitutional obligation to give fair consideration to U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Merrick Garland on March 21, 2016 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Lisa Lake/Getty Images for

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A lawsuit filed Thursday seeks to keep a proposed constitutional amendment question off the fall ballot, arguing it improperly combines a set of changes that should be voted on as separate amendments.

The state League of Women Voters and a registered voter sued Pennsylvania’s chief elections official in Commonwealth Court in a bid to prevent voting on Marsy’s Law on Nov. 5. The amendment would enshrine victims’ rights in the state constitution.

The ballot question passed the Legislature overwhelmingly and is widely expected to get voters’ final approval. If it passes, it will take effect in January.

The lawsuit filed in Commonwealth Court also argues the ballot question does not fully inform voters of the issues involved, describing its language as “a brief and incomplete summary” of the roughly 500-word proposed amendment.

A spokeswoman for acting Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, who is the defendant in the lawsuit, declined comment. The state has spent nearly $1.4 million this year advertising the ballot question ahead of November.

“The secretary’s failure to encompass all of the components of the proposed amendment into 75 words does not reflect any negligence on the part of the secretary,” the lawsuit said. “Rather, it shows that the proposed amendment is far too complex and multi-faceted to be presented in a 75-word summary.”

Critics of the proposed amendment have said they are concerned it will impinge on defendants’ right to a fair and speedy trial and that it contains vague and formulaic language. Supporters say it strengthens rights that are already in other laws by putting them into the constitution, and that the amendment expressly gives victims the ability to ask a judge to enforce those rights.

The proposed amendment would give victims the right to be notified about, attend and weigh in during plea hearings, sentencings and parole proceedings.

Jennifer Riley, state director for the national Marsy’s Law campaign, called the lawsuit a “last-ditch effort to disenfranchise voters.” Marsy’s Law is named for a 1983 California murder victim.

“It’s a political move by a special interest group that has lost every political and public debate on this issue over the past three years,” Riley said.

Lorraine Haw, a plaintiff, is a registered voter who supports some aspects of Marsy’s Law and not others, the complaint said.

“Ms. Haw cannot vote for the parts of the amendment she agrees with without voting for other things she disagrees with,” the lawsuit said. “She wants to be able to vote separately on each change to the constitution, as is her right.”

It’s unclear what will happen should the plaintiffs win in court. A lawyer for the ACLU, which is representing the plaintiffs, said it may be possible to keep the ballot question off electronic machines, and to simply not count other votes.

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