Crime Victims' Rights Added to Several States' Constitutions

Supporters of so-called Marsy's Law hope eventually to amend the U.S. Constitution.
by | November 6, 2018
The courthouse in Robeson County, N.C., one of six states with ballot initiatives this year that would enshrine crime victims' rights into the state Constitution. (AP/David Goldman)

SPEED READ:

  • Voters in six states -- Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Nevada, North Carolina and Oklahoma -- voted on a so-called Marsy's Law.
  • These measures will enshrine crime victims' rights in state constitutions.
  • Supporters hope eventually to amend the U.S. Constitution.
 

Constitutional amendments to protect crime victims' rights won approval from voters in Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina and Oklahoma on Tuesday. The measure also just exceeded the 60 percent needed for passage in Florida. It was also on the ballot in Nevada, where results are still uncertain.

The amendments are known as Marsy's Law, after Marsy Nicholas, a California woman who was murdered in 1983 by an ex-boyfriend who had been released on bail without her knowledge.

The provisions of the law vary by state but often guarantee victims or their families the ability to speak at more hearings and proceedings as well as the right to know a defendant's whereabouts at all points during the legal process. Many of these laws also tighten requirements for parole.

The law was pioneered in California a decade ago but has since been adopted by voters in four other states. (It was also approved by voters in Montana in 2016 but dismissed by a judge last year on a technicality.) The group's ultimate goal is to enshrine Marsy's Law in the U.S. Constitution. In Kentucky and North Carolina, these bills enjoyed strong bipartisan support from legislators on their way to the ballot. But a Marsy's Law failed to win approval this year in the Idaho and New Hampshire legislatures.

Some members of the law enforcement and legal communities oppose Marsy's Laws, arguing that they put a strain on legal and court systems.

"We definitely think it will clog the system," says Kate Miller, advocacy director of the ACLU of Kentucky. It would be better if more money was actually devoted to aiding victims than on campaigning for them, she says. "The only victims who are going to have access are those with private attorneys to represent them."

After adopting a Marsy's Law, South Dakota considered repealing it, having found that it put a strain on county resources. The law didn't differentiate among victims of different types of crime, so those touched by cases involving petty theft or trespassing had to be accorded the same amount of attention as victims of more serious crimes, such as rape. Lawmakers, however, worked out a compromise with Marsy's Law for All, and a revised constitutional amendment was approved by voters in June.

Opponents also argue that Marsy's Laws are redundant -- many of their provisions are already included in state laws. But Henry Goodwin, national communications adviser for Marsy's Laws for All, says those existing protections don't go far enough. Marsy's Laws essentially put victims' rights on par with defendants' rights by enshrining them in the constitution.

That's a problem, Miller argues, because it's not clear what would happen when the constitutional rights of the accused and the victims come into conflict. The reason rights are enshrined for the accused is to protect them from the powers of the state. Victims, presumably, need no such protection.

Politicians and voters tend to be less concerned about the rights of those accused of crimes, however, and more sympathetic to the victims of crimes. Where voters were offered the chance to decide on something promising to protect victims' rights, comfortable majorities supported it.

The primary driver of Marsy's Laws has been Marsy's brother, Henry Nicholas, the billionaire cofounder of Broadcom and founder of Marsy's Law for All, a national group that promotes the cause. Nicholas was arrested in August on suspicion of drug trafficking.

Despite his legal troubles, this year's campaigns were well-funded, while the public defenders' and constitutional rights groups that opposed Marsy's Law were barely able to muster a campaign against it. In past years, Nicholas has spent an average of about $2 million supporting each of the successful campaigns.

When asked before the election whether he thought Nicholas' criminal record would hurt the law's chances of passage, Goodwin said, "The victims' rights cause is bigger than any one man. It's not going to interfere with the work of advocates. It's not going to affect their hard work and dedication."

For results of the most important ballot measures, click here.