State lawmakers are decelerating a bill designed to give victims of violent crimes the same legal standing as those accused of committing them.
The model legislation is backed by high-powered lobbyists and financed by a California billionaire. It also had the backing of the entire legislative leadership. But some lawmakers are worried about implications to the justice system and its financial costs.
Last month, the so-called victims’ bill of rights proposal appeared to be on the fast-track to passage. Many of the rights are already codified in Maine law, but the proposed constitutional amendment broadens those rights, including allowing victims to refuse to be the subject of a deposition or discovery by the accused or his or her attorney.
Despite the early blessing from legislative leadership, some lawmakers are pumping the brakes.
“At this point there’s no way I could even think about voting for this,” says Republican state Sen. Scott Cyrway, a member of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, the panel vetting the proposal.
A former police officer, Cyrway says he’s sympathetic to victims. But he’s also worried about the implications of enshrining victims’ rights in the constitution.
Others worry that it will upend the primary tenet of the justice system, “innocent until proven guilty,” the constitutional protection guaranteed to defendants.
“To create constitutional rights for victims before the state has proven its case, is to negate the presumption of innocence,” says Democratic state Rep. Barbara Cardone, an attorney from Bangor.
Other opponents include the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, the Maine Commission on Domestic and Sexual Abuse Commission, the Criminal Law Advisory Commission and the Maine Prosecutors Association.
It’s supported by National Organization of Parents for Murdered Children, as well as several people who have lost family members to violent crime. The LePage administration also endorsed the proposal, but Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Morris couched his support.
“I caution you not to rush this bill,” he says, warning of unintended consequences on which he didn’t elaborate.
Opponents were quick to point out its flaws.
“The worst thing that we can do in this state to our victims is to create a set of expectations that we’re not going to honor by robust funding,” says Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson, speaking on behalf of the Maine Prosecutors Association.
Anderson told lawmakers that the proposal creates a set of procedures that will require additional resources, including staff in prosecutors’ offices and the judicial branch.
Mary Ann Lynch, a spokesperson for Maine courts, says they’re not taking a position on the bill but to expect additional costs if it’s approved.
Anderson described the proposal as a feel-good bill.
State Rep. Thomas Longstaff, a Democrat from Waterville, asked Anderson what kind of message the prosecutors were sending.
“The message is this: If you want these things, for real, you have to pay for them. And you’re not coming close right now,” she says.
Earlier this year, Montana suspended implementation of a voter-approved bill of rights, also known as Marsy’s Laws, amid concerns from law enforcement and victims organizations about inadequate funding.
North Dakota is currently facing a $4 million price tag to fund the victims’ rights bill approved by voters in November.
“It was sold to the people because obviously everyone wants to help victims. And it was sold to the people as a basic, you know, this is not going to affect the way we do business. And it absolutely has,” says Brian Gootkin, the sheriff for Gallatin County in southwest Montana.
Gootkin told Maine Public Radio in April that the new law loosely defined victims in such a way that it enshrined rights for more than just those who are affected by violent crimes. And that has created problems for cash-strapped victim services organizations.
Anderson told lawmakers to expect similar problems in Maine.
“This is in front of you right now because Marsy’s brother, who is worth $1.7 billion, has decided he wants to bring this to other states in memory of his sister,” she says.
Like other similar proposals, the victims’ bill of rights in Maine is pushed by the Marsy’s Law for All, an organization founded and financially backed by Henry Nicholas.
Nicholas’ sister Marsy was killed by her ex-boyfriend in 1983. Since then he has spent more than $16 million on the effort.
So far the lobbying effort in Maine is among the most expensive of the legislative session. It has been accompanied by a digital ad campaign of unknown cost.
Two-thirds of the Legislature is needed to send the bill to Maine voters. But so far, the bill appears short of that threshold.
This story was originally published on May 12, 2017, at 6:11 p.m.