A ballot question asking voters to approve an amendment to the Wisconsin Constitution expanding the rights of crime victims will remain on the April 7 ballot after a Dane County judge on Friday denied a request to block the question from appearing.
But opponents of the measure, called Marsy’s Law, said they will continue after the election to challenge the wording of the ballot question and will try to persuade the public to vote against it at the polls.
Dane County Circuit Judge Frank Remington said after oral arguments Friday that the Wisconsin Justice Initiative Inc., which filed a lawsuit in December challenging the ballot question as misleading, had not shown the group would be irreparably harmed by the placement of the question on the ballot.
Remington said while he is given pause by the group’s argument that somewhat differing language in the ballot question and in the law could be misleading, he isn’t ruling on the merits of the case at this stage, only on the injunction.
“I don’t know whether the public will be misled by voting on a question that uses the words “equal force” rather than “no less vigorous,” he said, referring to differing terms used to describe the rights of crime victims versus those of the accused under the amendment, and as stated in the ballot question. “But I do know that at least for today ... I believe that I need to presume that the question is constitutional.”
Although Friday’s ruling won’t keep the measure off the April ballot, briefs on the merits of the lawsuit will continue to be filed over the summer, with an oral argument scheduled in August. The case doesn’t challenge the substance of the constitutional amendment, only the wording of the ballot question.
“Today’s decision will ensure Wisconsinites have the opportunity to vote on April 7 to strengthen the constitutional rights of crime victims,” Marsy’s Law for Wisconsin spokeswoman Myranda Tanck said in a statement after the decision. “We look forward to continuing to educate voters on the need to give victims of crime additional rights.”
Wisconsin Justice Initiative president Craig Johnson said the organization also plans to educate voters, but “about the dangers and the fundamental problems this constitutional amendment in substance represents for the justice system and the due process rights for accused persons.”
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He said the group plans to hold events, possibly purchase advertisements and perhaps hold a forum debating the substance of the ballot question with its proponents.
“We think that the question presented really doesn’t inform the voters fully about the full consequences of (Marsy’s Law),” Johnson said. “Voters really shouldn’t have to vote in the dark, and that’s the problem with the question and the way it’s worded.”
Wisconsin’s version of Marsy’s Law was approved by the state Legislature in May with bipartisan support. As an amendment to the state constitution, it had to be approved in two successive sessions of the Legislature.
Ten states have some version of Marsy’s Law, named for Marsalee “Marsy” Nicholas, a California woman who was killed in 1983 by her ex-boyfriend after he was released from jail, without notification to Nicholas.
Wisconsin Justice Initiative’s lawsuit states the ballot question fails to fully provide “a full and fair summary of a constitutional amendment” and fails to “pose a question that states the substance and essentials of the proposed amendment.”
Besides Johnson, plaintiffs also include attorneys Jacqueline Boynton and Jerome Buting, along with state Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison.
Wisconsin Justice Initiative asserts that the amendment, as posed in the ballot question, infringes on the rights of people accused of crimes by giving rights to a crime victim before any conviction has occurred, infringes on their right to have certain proceedings, such as bail hearings, if victims are not available to be present, and infringes on the rights of the accused to a public trial.
Johnson added victim privacy provisions in the amendment could keep exculpatory evidence, such as data on computers or other electronics, away from those accused of crimes.
Lawyers for the state Department of Justice, asking that the lawsuit be dismissed, counter that the Legislature has broad discretion in creating the form that a ballot question takes. As written, it only needs to help voters identify the question being voted upon, the state’s lawyers wrote, and doesn’t have to explain the amendment in detail or discuss its policy implications.