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Kentucky Supreme Court Blocks ‘Marsy’s Law’ Constitutional Amendment

The Kentucky Supreme Court has unanimously ruled against “Marsy’s Law,” a proposal that would have enshrined a new list of rights for crime victims in the state constitution.

Kentucky voters supported the measure by a wide margin during a ballot referendum on Election Day last year, but the court ruled that the entire 553-word proposal should have been included on the ballot instead of only a 38-word summary.

The language included on last year’s ballot was established by the Marsy’s Law bill, which passed the state legislature in 2018.

The ruling amounts to a change in how Kentucky will go about amending the state constitution. Instead of state lawmakers determining what voters will see on the ballot when considering a constitutional amendment, the entire amendment will be required to be published.

“The intent of the Framers was not to give to the General Assembly absolute authority to determine the form of the amendment that must be published and submitted,” the ruling stated.

“Our constitution is too important and valuable to be amended without the full amendment ever being put to the public.”

Marsy’s Law would have created 10 new provisions in the state constitution, requiring crime victims be notified of court proceedings of those accused of committing crimes against them, allowing victims to testify at all court proceedings and giving victims a right to receive compensation from the convicted and more.

Opponents to the measure like the American Civil Liberties Union argued that it could overburden the justice system and give accusers an advantage over the accused.

The proposal was named for Marsy Nicholas, a Californian murdered by her ex-boyfriend in 1983. Her family has pushed for the measure in several states after running into the accused killer in a grocery store — he had been released on bail.

Marsy’s Law for Kentucky, the organization that has lobbied for the measure issued a statement on Thursday saying they would push for it again during next year’s legislative session.

“This is not the end of the line for Marsy’s Law, but merely a fork in the road. For we are now more than ever committed to delivering crime victims the equal rights they are owed. We look forward to working with the General Assembly again to put Marsy’s Law back on the ballot for Kentucky voters in 2020 in a form that will pass legal muster as defined by the court,” the organization wrote.

State Sen. Whitney Westerfield, a Republican from Hopkinsville, sponsored the measure in Kentucky and shepherded the proposal through the legislature. Following the ruling, he issued a statement expressing his disappointment.

“Kentucky voters spoke loud and clear in support of crime victims on Election Day in 2018. Like the majority of Kentuckians, I believe that crime victims deserve to be afforded the respect, justice, and equal rights that Marsy’s Law would provide,” Westerfield wrote. “It is troubling that in order to reach this conclusion the Supreme Court reversed years of established precedent and inserted an entirely new requirement for amending our state constitution.”

Kentucky voters approved the amendment with 63 percent of the vote last year.

Westerfield is also running for the Kentucky Supreme Court’s 1st district seat this year, seeking to fill a vacancy created by Justice Bill Cunningham. His opponent is Appeals Judge Christopher Shea Nickell.

Marsy’s Law was challenged by the Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, arguing that the proposal voters saw on the ballot last year didn’t adequately describe was Marsy’s Law would do.

Here is the language that was on ballots across Kentucky:

“Are you in favor of providing constitutional rights to victims of crime, including the right to be treated fairly, with dignity and respect, and the right to be informed and to have a voice in the judicial process?”

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives for Kentucky Public Radio, a group of public radio stations including WKMS, WFPL in Louisville, WEKU in Richmond and WKYU in Bowling Green. A native of Lexington, Ryland most recently served as the Capitol Reporter for Kentucky Public Radio. He has covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin.
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