Voting chief fires back against bid to derail ballot measure

(Harrisburg) — Pennsylvania’s top elections official defended the language of a constitutional amendment ballot question Wednesday and urged a state court to deny a pending request to stop it from going before voters next month.

Acting Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar filed her response to a lawsuit by the Pennsylvania League of Women Voters that asks for an injunction against the proposed victims’ rights amendment.

Boockvar said the amendment does not improperly combine what are really several different amendments, as the plaintiffs have argued.

“The Crime Victims’ Rights Amendment pertains to a single subject matter — securing victims’ rights in the criminal case in which they suffered direct harm,” lawyers for the attorney general’s office wrote on Boockvar’s behalf. “Every single subpart of the amendment advances this one goal.”

Boockvar noted that state government has spent more than $2 million preparing the question for the Nov. 5 vote, and absentee ballots have already begun to be returned.

On Wednesday, the Commonwealth Court scheduled an Oct. 23 hearing in Harrisburg on the preliminary injunction request. The court will also consider a request from Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala that he be allowed to join the case to defend the proposed amendment.

The ballot question would enshrine victims’ rights in the state constitution, giving them the right to be notified about, attend and weigh in during plea hearings, sentencings and parole proceedings.

Critics of the proposal have argued it may infringe on defendants’ right to a fair and speedy trial and that its language is vague and formulaic. 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 victims’ rights amendment is part of a national Marsy’s Law campaign, named for a 1983 murder victim in California. It has encountered practical and legal problems in some other states, including Kentucky, where the Supreme Court in June voided its Marsy’s Law constitutional amendment after it had passed with 63% of the vote.

Kentucky’s high court said the question, as posed to voters, was too vague and the full text of the amendment had to be on the ballot.

The Pennsylvania lawsuit argues its proposed Marsy’s Law would make a host of changes that should be voted on as separate amendments.

The lawsuit also claims the ballot question does not fully inform voters, calling its language “a brief and incomplete summary” of the 500-word proposed amendment.

“The ballot question proposes one amendment related to one subject,” Boockvar’s response said. “Simply because the amendment contains related subparts does not render it unconstitutional.”

She argues that there is no requirement in Pennsylvania that a proposed constitutional amendment ballot question contain the amendment’s full text.

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