The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Friday agreed to consider whether a constitutional amendment that sought to enhance the rights of crime victims in Wisconsin was properly put before voters before it was enacted last year.
The case focuses on a measure known as “Marsy’s Law,” which was promoted by a California billionaire and supported by crime victims who say it makes their rights just as strong as those of the accused by enshrining them in the Wisconsin Constitution.
In May 2019, the measure was approved in largely bipartisan votes by the Legislature and put on the April 2020 ballot. The constitutional amendment was passed by about 75% of Wisconsin voters but later challenged by the Wisconsin Justice Initiative, along with attorneys Jacqueline Boynton, Jerome Buting and Craig Johnson and now-retired state Sen. Fred Risser, who disputed the validity of the question put to voters.
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A Dane County judge ruled in late 2020 that the statewide ballot question was improperly worded when it was presented to voters and that it inadequately spelled out the effect the amendment would have on the rights of people accused of crimes.
Circuit Judge Frank Remington ruled in the case brought by the Wisconsin Justice Initiative that had the question been broken into two parts — one addressing greater rights for victims and another on the diminishment of the rights of the accused — voters would have been better informed about the overall impact.
About a year later, a three-judge panel of the state District 3 Court of Appeals asked that the state Supreme Court bypass the appeals court and decide the case, citing its statewide importance, the novelty of some of the questions the appeal asks and the lack of significant legal authority on other questions.
If Marsy’s Law is found to be invalid, the panel wrote, the Legislature might want to resubmit a proper ballot question to voters. It also said resolving the issues presented would be in the best interests of the proponents of Marsy’s Law.
The law was named after Marsalee (Marsy) Ann Nicholas, a University of California Santa Barbara student who was stalked and killed by her ex-boyfriend in 1983. Just a week after the murder, Marsy’s mother, Marcella, was confronted by her daughter’s murderer at a local market. She hadn’t been told he had been released on bail just days after Marsy’s murder. Henry Nicholas III is Marsy’s brother, and the billionaire founder of the Marsy’s Law national campaign.
Supporters of Marsy’s Law say it simply gives alleged victims the same rights as those of the accused. Some rights for victims are already delineated in the Wisconsin Constitution, and others are outlined in statute, which carries less weight. Opponents say it could undermine the rights of defendants, who are presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Ultimately, Marsy’s Law added 16 new rights for victims while eliminating reference to a fair trial for the defendant.