TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Looking at the interplay with rights of criminal defendants, the Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday heard arguments about whether voters should cast ballots on a proposed constitutional amendment that would expand crime victims’ rights.
The state Constitution Revision Commission this spring approved placing the amendment --- which has become commonly known as “Marsy’s Law” --- on the Nov. 6 general-election ballot. But Leon County Circuit Judge Karen Gievers last week blocked the measure, ruling that the ballot title and summary would not meet legal requirements to “fully, fairly and accurately” inform voters about the purpose of the amendment.
The Supreme Court quickly scheduled arguments on the issue as elections officials this month will start sending out general-election ballots. Justices did not indicate Wednesday how they will rule.
The proposed amendment has components such as increasing a retirement age for judges, but the debate centers on the main thrust to expand victims’ rights. The proposed ballot summary, in part, says the measure creates “constitutional rights for victims of crime; requires courts to facilitate victims’ rights; (and) authorizes victims to enforce their rights throughout criminal and juvenile justice processes.”
Detailed text of the proposal then spells out a series of rights for crime victims, such as the right to receive notice to be present at court proceedings; the right to be heard in a variety of type of proceedings; the right to confer with prosecutors about issues such as plea bargains; the right to full restitution; and the right to proceedings free from “unreasonable” delay.
Legal challenges, however, have focused on whether the proposal would affect the rights of criminal defendants and whether the ballot title and summary --- the part that voters see when they go to the polls --- explains those potential effects.
In her ruling against the proposal, Gievers said a 1988 constitutional amendment provided rights to crime victims “to the extent that these rights do not interfere with the constitutional rights of the accused.” She said the new proposal, in part, would not adequately inform voters that it “is a substantial removal and modification of the rights of those accused in a criminal proceeding and of children accused in a juvenile justice proceeding.”
But Barry Richard, an attorney for Marsy’s Law for Florida, a group that has spearheaded the amendment, told the Supreme Court on Wednesday that there is “no material impact upon those preexisting rights.”
“None of these victims’ rights in any way adversely affects the right of an accused to appear, to be given notice and to be heard. Nothing,” Richard said.
But plaintiffs’ attorney Mark Herron, who is representing Southwest Florida defense lawyer Lee Hollander and the League of Women Voters of Florida, said the proposed constitutional amendment would delete some language in the current Constitution about defendants’ rights without giving notice to voters.
“We believe and we assert that the ballot summary and title fails to accurately inform the voters of the effect on existing constitutional rights of defendants,” Herron said.
The Supreme Court is only supposed to look at whether the ballot title and summary present a clear picture to voters and is not supposed to consider the merits of the underlying proposal.
Chief Justice Charles Canady appeared skeptical of Herron’s arguments.
“Wouldn’t you concede, Mr. Herron, that most of these rights of crime victims don’t have any impact on the constitutional rights of defendants? … They don’t really bump up against each other, I mean for most of them. Wouldn’t that be true?” Canady said.
But justices Barbara Pariente and Jorge Labarga questioned Richard about whether defendants’ rights would be affected.
“Although every one of us has sympathy for the rights of (the) victim, the accused is not yet convicted of a crime, so they are still under our system of laws presumed innocent,” Pariente said.
The Marsy’s Law proposal is part of a broader national victims’ rights movement stemming from the 1983 death of a California woman, Marsy Nicholas, who was stalked and killed by an ex-boyfriend.