A well-financed effort to enact a constitutional amendment to give victims of violent crimes the same legal standing as those accused of committing them is back before state lawmakers.
The Legislature shelved Marsy’s Law last year amid concerns about its costs and effects on the justice system. But proponents of the bill, backed by a California billionaire, have been working hard to gather allies and to convince lawmakers to send the bill to voters for approval.
Marsy’s Law for Maine isn’t an official campaign committee yet, but it is operating like one. It has hired an army of consultants, enlisted high-profile surrogates like Maine first lady Ann LePage and paid a lobbying firm over $120,000 last year, by far the most spent on any single bill.
It’s also running paid digital ads on Facebook like one featuring Ramona Torres, whose son Angel disappeared in 1999 and was never found.
“But we need to support Marsy’s Law, not only for our son, but for everyone in Maine. If this were to happen to anyone, we’d have something in place,” Torres says in the ad.
Heart-wrenching stories from people who have lost loved ones are critical for what the organization describes as a victims bill of rights.
The effort is funded by California billionaire Henry Nicholas, who has dumped at least $16 million in ballot campaigns to convince other states to adopt similar proposals.
If ratified by Maine voters, the proposal would enshrine in the state constitution a slate of specific rights, including notifying alleged victims when a suspect is released from custody, notifying them about all court and parole proceedings and allowing victims to be heard at sentencing.
“I already have to do a lot of this work. The only difference that I see is that we’re guaranteeing it in the constitution. But we’re already obligated by statute to do this work,” says Maeghan Maloney, the district attorney for Kennebec and Somerset counties.
On Monday, Maloney told the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee that she isn’t worried about incurring additional costs if Marsy’s Law is enacted. Cost concerns are partially what stymied the Maine bill last year, and they’re grounded in the experience of other states that have adopted similar measures.
In 2016, more than 60 percent of Montana voters ratified a victims bill of rights only to see an explosion in the need for victims services, such as counselors and administrators. Last fall, that state’s Supreme Court overturned Marsy’s Law, citing a different problem: that its sweeping constitutional changes should have been considered by voters individually, not in an omnibus bill.
The Montana experience is one reason why Maine district attorneys are divided over the proposal — they’re the ones who would bear the brunt of funding victim services if a spike were to occur here.
But Maloney, who participated in a stakeholder group organized by the Marsy’s Law group last summer, says her office is already providing those services as required by state law.
If that’s the case, why the urgency to get those existing laws constitutionally enshrined?
“It’s a great question and it’s because the constitution is harder to change,” Maloney says.
“Victims rights have expanded over the past 30 years, much more so than when I was previously prosecuting,” says Tim Woodcock, an attorney from Bangor.
Woodcock says Maine has been expanding victim’s rights for the past 30 years. A former prosecutor, he occasionally deals in criminal law, and he warned that there are bigger, constitutional issues with Marsy’s Law.
“I do believe that this, as a constitutional amendment, would not only put the Maine Constitution on a collision course with the Bill of Rights, I think it would put the Maine Constitution on a collision course with itself,” he says.
Woodcock says that’s because Marsy’s Law would ascribe constitutional rights to victims before charges against the accused are adjudicated. He says that would effectively upend the rights of the accused.
Those accused were the focus of the Constitution’s drafters. They understood that oppressive governments can use the criminal process to jail dissidents.
But Woodcock acknowledged that his argument may have little effect if Marsy’s Law becomes a full-fledged campaign. After all, powerful stories of victims highlighted in ads like the ones currently running in Maine have resonated with voters in other states that have approved Marsy’s Laws, often by decisive margins.
But for now, the Marsy’s Law campaign is focused on influencing the Legislature, two-thirds of which will need to support it before it goes to voters.