Crime Victims’ Rights Bill Voided in Montana

HELENA, Mont. (CN) — A voter-approved crime victims’ rights amendment to the Montana Constitution was struck down by the state Supreme Court as unconstitutional Wednesday.

Versions of Marsy’s Law, first adopted by referendum in California in 2008 as the California Victim’s Bill of Rights, have also been adopted in Illinois, Montana, and North and South Dakota. It is named for Marsy Nicholas, a college student whose ex-boyfriend Kerry Conley stalked and killed her in 1983.

Her brother Henry Nicholas, co-founder of Broadcom Corporation, is one of the law’s main advocates. A week after the murder, unaware that Marsy’s killer had been released on bail, Nicholas and his mother were confronted by Conley in a grocery store. Conley died in prison in 2007.

Among other things, Marsy’s Law requires courts to consider the safety of family members when setting bail and release conditions, and gives legal standing to family members in certain proceedings.

The American Civil Liberties Union and others have challenged Marsy’s Law as unconstitutional.

When Montana voters approved the law as Citizens Initiative 116 last year, the ACLU challenged it in court, and this week the state Supreme Court voided it in a 5-2 ruling.

The ACLU claimed the Montana version of Marsy’s Law amended multiple sections of the state constitution and redefined “victim” in a way that would compromise the privacy of sexual assault and domestic-violence victims.

In a blog post, the ACLU cited retired Montana Supreme Court Justice Jim Nelson, who called the law “a solution in search of a problem.”

“I think all prosecutors in the state are on uncharted ground,” Nelson was quoted as saying in a Great Falls Tribune editorial. “Marsy’s Law is a constitutional amendment, which means crime victims have fundamental rights under the state’s constitution now.”

In its Wednesday ruling, the Montana Supreme Court voided the law in its entirety.

The court found it violated the state requirement for separate votes because it amended multiple sections of the state constitution.

“When voters were required to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for CI-116 in its entirety, they were forced to vote for or against multiple, not closely related, changes to the Montana Constitution with one vote,” Justice Laurie McKinnon wrote for the majority.

“Voters had no way to express their opinions as to each proposed constitutional change.”

McKinnon said the court’s decision was not based on the constitutional merits of Marsy’s Law, only that the law contained more than one constitutional amendment, and needed separate votes.

Writing in dissent, Justice Jim Rice, joined by Justice Beth Baker, called the majority’s separate vote requirement “deeply flawed.”

The section of the state constitution requiring separate votes “does not require separate votes for text and effect, but for wholly separate amendments, and we should analyze the issue in that way,” Rice wrote.

“My disagreement lies in the test adopted by the Court for identifying these separate amendments.”

The director of Marsy’s Law for Montana, which sponsored the initiative, was disappointed by the decision, “especially given the technical legal grounds employed by a few to detriment of many.”

“The people of the state overwhelmingly supported constitutional rights for victims of crime,” Chuck Denowh said in a statement.

Montana’s branch of the ACLU praised the decision, its legal director saying it “vindicates the original principles of the state’s constitutional convention.”

Plaintiff and attorney Leo Gallagher said: “Although well-intentioned, the process leading to CI-116’s passage deprived Montana voters of the ability to consider the many, separate ways it changed Montana’s constitution or explain the significant administrative, financial, and compliance burdens its unfunded mandates imposed upon state, county and local governments while jeopardizing the existing rights of everyone involved with the criminal judicial system.”

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