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Split Court Tosses Pennsylvania Victims' Rights Amendment

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP/KDKA) — A divided state court on Thursday threw out a victims' rights state constitutional amendment that voters apparently passed by a wide margin, ruling it bundled too many changes together.

Commonwealth Court in a 3-2 decision said state officials may not tabulate the votes for the so-called Marsy's Law amendment that was on the ballot in November 2019.

The majority agreed with the state League of Women Voters, which sued Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar to keep the election results from being counted. The judges said it ran afoul of a Pennsylvania Constitution provision that requires amendments to address a single subject only.

"Because the constitution mandates a separate vote on each proposed constitutional amendment, 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," wrote Judge Ellen Ceisler in support of throwing it out.

Judge Patricia McCullough said the proposed amendment "simply embraces too many disparate matters to effectively convey its import to voters within the 75 words mandated by statute."

But in a two-judge dissent, Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt said there was "only speculation" offered about the effect of the amendment on defendants' rights and the legal system.

She said the decision keeps people from expressing their political will.

"The judgment the court enters today deprives the people of this power on the strength of no more than speculation," she wrote.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs and Boockvar's spokeswoman declined immediate comment. The state district attorney's association said it was disappointed by the result.

The amendment would have enshrined into the state constitution rights for crime victims that include notifications about the case and being allowed to attend and weigh in during plea hearings, sentencings and parole proceedings.

"We are disappointed by the decision of the Commonwealth Court," the Pennsylvania Office of Victim Advocate wrote in a statement. "Elevating victims' rights to the constitutional level and providing victims with standing to assert their own rights is what creates the equality that our justice system was founded on. The voices of victims are diminished far too often in the criminal justice and court systems. Now is the time to create equality and balance within the very fabric that defines how justice is achieved."

The state Supreme Court, also divided, ruled just before the November 2019 vote that elections officials could not tabulate or certify the votes while litigation continued. Unofficial tallies showed it passed by about a three-to-one margin, according to case filings.

Boockvar's lawyers argued the votes should have counted, saying the amendment's changes all related to a single purpose of advancing victims' rights.

(TM and © Copyright 2021 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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