This piece originally appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times.
You’ve probably seen the yard signs or TV ads about the so-called “victim’s rights” amendment appearing on state ballots this year. It might sound like a good common sense proposal at first, but under the surface, this amendment -- like all six flawed and misleading proposed constitutional amendments before voters -- is much more complicated and could in reality be very damaging for our state.
Also known as “Marsy’s Law,” the amendment is being pushed by a $5 million campaign backed by a California billionaire. It would replace the rights crime victims already have in our state constitution with new, broadly defined rights. For example, it would require that victims of a wide range of crimes be given the ability to be heard at most court proceedings concerning the person being charged with that crime. This might sound simple, but it has wide-ranging implications. In some circumstances, not just people but corporations could be considered “victims” and therefore given a right to be heard at every stage of a trial. Do we really want big corporations to have more influence in our justice system?
We all agree that victims and their families deserve to be supported and treated with respect and dignity. But the reality is that Marsy’s Law is a misguided and problematic proposal — one that would fundamentally change our courts and could potentially delay justice for all, at a hefty cost to taxpayers.
In the United States, we are all innocent until proven guilty. Each one of us is guaranteed rights under the Constitution, which is meant to protect people from having those rights violated by the government — not from other individuals. Creating new requirements for court proceedings could threaten those rights for anyone who appears in court, such as the right to a speedy trial and competent legal representation, while also tying the hands of judges and giving them less flexibility in the courtroom. Anyone who has spent time in North Carolina courts knows full well how bad our backlog of cases already is. Marsy’s Law will likely make it worse.
What is often lost in this discussion is that North Carolina already has protections for crime victims in state law and our constitution. But if we enshrine the many new requirements of “Marsy’s Law” into our state constitution, and new problems or unintended consequences arise, it will become nearly impossible to make necessary tweaks and improvements to correct course. That’s because once something is voted into our constitution, it can only be changed by placing it back on the ballot for voters again.
This is not a baseless fear. After South Dakota voters passed Marsy’s Law in 2016, police, prosecutors, and other officials experienced the impact of serious unintended consequences, from new expenses and bureaucratic burdens, to people who hadn’t been convicted of a crime spending more time in jail while they waited for their day in court. The only way to address these harmful side effects was to put another amendment on the ballot for voters earlier this year. In Montana and Kentucky, courts have even ruled against Marsy’s Law, saying it was written and put before voters in a flawed and misleading manner.
While the full impact of these changes is debated, there is one thing we know for sure: Marsy’s Law would be very expensive for taxpayers. A fiscal note by North Carolina’s Administrative Office of the Courts estimated that Marsy’s Law would cost $16.4 million to implement and an additional $30.5 million each year after. Rather than spend $46 million over two years on a vague and misguided constitutional amendment, North Carolina could better serve victims by investing in programs that reduce crime and address its harms: victims’ services, domestic violence shelters, and re-entry and counseling programs that reduce recidivism.
Our state faces serious funding needs: rebuilding our infrastructure after hurricanes, combating the opioid crisis, fixing our schools, and more. We can’t afford to gamble as much as $30 million a year on a California billionaire’s permanent, one-size-fits-all plan that is not just unnecessary but actively harmful. Crime victims and their families should be supported. But Marsy’s Law is not the way to do it.
North Carolinians should see through the sound bites of this well-funded campaign that oversimplifies a very complicated issue, and vote against this (and every other) constitutional amendment.