LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The Kentucky Supreme Court heard arguments Friday about "Marsy's Law," the victims' rights measure that voters backed last fall amid concerns that the ballot question didn't give enough detail.
The Kentucky legislature easily approved a bill in 2018 that would enshrine a set of specific protections for crime victims in the state constitution, sending the matter to voters in the November general election.
But a group of defense attorneys filed a lawsuit before then, claiming the ballot wording didn't reflect the substance of what lawmakers passed. The 555-word amendment creating 10 new protections appeared as a 38-word question on ballots.
A circuit court judge agreed, triggering an appeal that landed at the state's high court.
At the Supreme Court on Friday, Deputy Chief Justice Lisabeth T. Hughes raised questions about whether the succinct ballot question put to voters did indeed encompass the bill and the impact on other complex bills in the future.
"If this passes muster, what happens next time when it's a seemingly equally simple question that is going to wheelbarrow into the constitution a number of things that are not presented?" she asked.
Hughes questioned whether media coverage actually presented the full language voters would be seeing, saying "The electorate never saw the actual language that will become a section of our bedrock document. All they saw was a simple question."
"I beg to differ with you that the electorate never saw the question," Marsy's Law attorney Sheryl Snyder shot back. "The question was vastly publicized all across the state."
Kenyon Meyer, an attorney for the Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which filed the lawsuit, argued that the substance of the changes to the constitution were not accurately reflected in the question put to voters.
"What function does the ballot question serve," Snyder asked. "Is it supposed to be the Encyclopedia Britannica? Or is it a question formulated to state the substance the essence, the essential nature of the amendment?"
Meyer argued that the vague wording effectively takes from the people the power to amend the state constitution and gives it to a well-funded special interest group -- in this case, the Marsy's Law campaign that is pursuing its proposal at the state level.
Kentucky voters overwhelmingly backed the Marsy's Law question, with 63 percent supporting it. But in the weeks leading up to the November election, some prosecutors, defense attorneys and other critics warned that the changes could create unintended consequences, such as new burdens on overworked and understaffed court systems, while victims’ rights will be tilted in favor of those who can afford attorneys.
The question, as it appeared on ballots, read: "Are you in favor of providing constitutional rights to victims of crime, including the right to be treated fairly, with dignity and respect, and the right to be informed and to have a voice in the judicial process?"
Marsy's Law founder Henry Nicholas has spent more than $5 million on the effort in Kentucky according to the state's election finance registry.
Nicholas' sister, Marsalee "Marsy" Nicholas, was a college student who was shot and killed by her ex-boyfriend in California in 1983.
It took three years to get Marsy's Law on the ballot in Kentucky.
Proponents say the proposed amendment simply expands current law and beefs up notification provisions for victims that are “pretty weak," state Sen. Whitney Westerfield, the bill's sponsor, previously told WDRB News.
The new rights would apply to victims of felony crimes and misdemeanors involving threats, personal injury or harassment, among others.
Westerfield has argued that any new constitutional rights for victims would not dilute those of defendants.
In a statement Friday, Marsy's Law of Kentucky said its attorney made a "strong case" in court.
"As we have said all along, the ballot question drafted by the General Assembly was adequate and clear," the statement read, in part. "The voters of Kentucky were well informed about the purpose and intent of Marsy’s Law through a three-year educational campaign and legislative process."
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