Subscribe for 17¢ / day

The Montana Supreme Court last week defended our state constitution from a one-size-fits-all campaign purporting to add crime victim protections as was done in California.

Last fall, Montana voters approved Constitutional Initiative 116, which was copied from a California law and promoted in a campaign financed mostly by an out-of-state organization. The goals of protecting crime victims are shared by all law-abiding Montanans. But CI-116, known as Marsy’s law, was a bad fit for Montana from the start of its lengthy text to its demands for expansion of the definitions of “victim” and “crime” to its conflict with guarantees of fair trial and Montanans' right to know about their government.

The Montana Association of Counties sued to stop implementation of the initiative law because of the costs and changes it mandated for local governments. A group led by MACo and the Lewis and Clark County attorney won a delay in implementation while the high court considered whether the law was constitutional.

In a 5-2 decision, the Montana Supreme Court held that Mary’s law violated the Montana constitutional requirement that each change in state law must be presented and voted on separately. That separate vote requirement was in the states’ first two constitutions and was adopted unanimously during the Constitutional Convention of 1972, Justice Laurie McKinnon wrote for the majority. Justices Jim Rice and Beth Baker dissented, arguing that it is premature for the court to rule on the law until after it has taken effect.

“The separate-vote requirement has two well-recognized objectives,” McKinnon wrote. “The first is to avoid voter confusion and deceit of the public by ensuring proposals are not misleading or the effects of which are concealed or not readily understandable. The second is to avoid ‘logrolling’ or combining unrelated amendments into a single measure which might not otherwise command majority support. By combining unrelated amendments, approval of the measure may be secured by different groups, each of which will support the entire proposal in order to secure some part, even though not approving all parts of a multifarious amendment.”

In other words, our state constitution says voters have the power to decide each and every constitutional change submitted to them. They cannot be forced to approve or reject a package of constitutional changes with a single vote.

The court found that Marsy’s Law made multiple constitutional changes affecting: the power of the Supreme Court to govern attorney conduct, the right to bail, criminal procedure rules, rights of the accused, the right to know and the right to privacy.

The Billings Gazette and other Montana newspapers joined in filing a brief to reject Marsy’s Law because, among other things, the initiative would have expanded secrecy and reduced public access to criminal justice information that now is public.

Before this initiative was sold to Montanans, our state already protected victims. For example, the Billings Police Department already had a policy of providing assistance information to victims before Marsy’s Law went on the ballot last November.

The Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office employs eight victim-witness coordinators to assist victims of both felony and misdemeanor crimes. The Billings City Attorney’s Office has long provided victim assistance to victims of domestic violence, and recently hired a third victim assistant.

Montana law still protects victims of crime, even though Marsy’s Law has been voided. Montanans must demand consistent enforcement of existing laws and we must ensure that that court and law enforcement have sufficient resources to do this work. Montanans should exercise our right to know how our elected and appointed criminal justice officials are doing their jobs, so we can effectively hold them accountable for protecting crime victims.

— The Billings Gazette


Load comments