The Nov. 6 ballot includes, as Question 4, a proposed state constitutional amendment that “provides rights for victims of crime in the judicial process.” The Reporter Newspapers asked two advocates to explain the pro and con arguments on the question, which is commonly known as “Marsy’s Law.” For the commentary supporting the amendment, click here.
November ballots in six states, Georgia among them, include a referendum on whether to add to those state constitutions a victims’ bill of rights commonly known as Marsy’s Law.
It’s likely to pass; no right-thinking person would vote against victims’ rights. But in Georgia, where the statutory crime victim’s bill of rights is acknowledged as one of the strongest in the nation, a constitutional amendment is a solution in search of a problem.
Marsy’s Law is an initiative begun and heavily funded by California billionaire Henry Nicholas, whose sister, Marsalee “Marsy” Nicholas, died after being shot in 1983 by her ex-boyfriend.
Marsy’s brother told the Los Angeles Times: “After the funeral service, we were driving home and stopped at a market so my mother could just run in and get a loaf of bread. And there in the checkout line was my sister’s murderer, glowering at her.”
He said the family was not told the accused killer had made bail; there was no obligation by the state or court to inform the family. Nicholas funded a ballot initiative that led to a 2008 California constitutional amendment. In 2009, he founded Marsy’s Law for All, whose goal is to add victims’ rights to all state constitutions and, eventually, to the U.S. Constitution.
Voters in Illinois, Ohio, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota passed constitutional amendments. A Montana court tossed its version out. South Dakota’s legislature and Marsy’s Law advocates renegotiated after the amendment passed with costly, unintended consequences, including hindering the press. In South Dakota and North Dakota, some officers are claiming “victim” status to shield their identity after shootings.
Florida, Kentucky, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina and Oklahoma are next. A Kentucky judge has already ruled the amendment is so vaguely worded that the vote will not be certified, noting, “The electorate cannot be expected to vote on a constitutional amendment of which they are not adequately informed of the substance.”
The Marsy’s Law for All mantra is, inexplicably, “equal rights for crime victims,” as if crime victims are less equal under the Constitution. Victims of crime were shepherded across Georgia and into the state Capitol to share how the justice system let them down. Heart-wrenching campaign ads feature victims, while advocates and lobbyists argue a constitutional amendment is needed to add heft to statutory victim protections.
The Georgia Public Policy Foundation warned in 2017 of the unintended consequences of the Senate’s initial legislation. The subsequent bicameral compromise is less harmful. Now, a victim (broadly defined) would “opt in” to be informed of case proceedings. If they are not informed, they have a right to be heard in court.
Georgia legislators are justifiably proud of their hard-won, nationally recognized advances in criminal justice reforms, accepting since 2011 that it’s time to get “smart on crime.” In a state where one person in 13 is under some form of correctional supervision, separating justice from vengeance is crucial; it’s perhaps why Lady Justice is blindfolded.
Georgia’s Crime Victim’s Bill of Rights has been in force since 1995. Georgia state Rep. Mandi Ballinger, a former victims’ rights advocate, asserted, “Georgia has one of the strongest victims’ rights statutes in the country.” The state also has a Victim Information Program and metro counties participate in the VINELink victim information network.
If the system is letting down some victims and alleged victims, the solution would be to repair the system. Instead, Georgia wants voters to sign off on a potential new problem by experimenting with evolving proposals and enshrine victims’ “equal rights” in the state Constitution, where problems become even more difficult to fix.
Benita Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a nonprofit, non-partisan research institute that promotes economic freedom and limited government.