Lawsuit seeks to block Wisconsin crime victims amendment

MADISON — A government watchdog group filed a lawsuit Thursday seeking to block a statewide vote on a ballot question that would amend the Wisconsin Constitution to expand crime victims' rights, arguing that it is deceptive and a threat to the rights of the accused.

The proposed amendment was approved with broad bipartisan support by the Wisconsin Legislature and is set to appear on the April 7 ballot for voter approval. If passed, the state constitution would then be amended to include new victims' rights.

Known as Marsy's Law, the amendment largely duplicates existing victim protections but goes further in several areas.

The lawsuit filed by the Wisconsin Justice Initiative and three voters alleges that the question is invalid and unconstitutional and should not be on the April ballot. It asks a judge to prevent the Wisconsin Elections Commission from submitting the question for a vote.

Montana voters passed a Marsy's Law in 2016 that the state Supreme Court later overturned, citing flaws in how it was written. Ten states — California, Ohio, Illinois, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nevada, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Georgia and Florida — have enacted a version of the law. It is named for Marsalee “Marsy” Nicholas, a California woman who was killed in 1983 by her ex-boyfriend after he was released from jail without her being notified.

In Wisconsin, when the Legislature proposes a constitutional amendment, it submits a paragraph to appear on the ballot explaining what the amendment would do. The lawsuit claims that the paragraph lawmakers submitted for the crime victims amendment failed to adequately explain the new and expanded rights it would extend.

Because the Legislature did not fully explain the amendment, it would be unlawful to place it on the ballot for a vote, the lawsuit said.

“Voters are being asked to vote on a single sentence that doesn’t remotely begin to describe what Marsy’s Law is and what it does,’’ said Craig Johnson, board president of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative, in a statement. “It may sound reasonable. But the question masks a proposed amendment twice the length of the U.S. Bill of Rights."

The lawsuit also claims that new rights to be given crime victims would infringe on the constitutional rights of the accused. The lawsuit further claims that the amendment would expand the definition of crime victims to include people who weren't previously constitutionally considered to be crime victims. The lawsuit argues that the amendment presents more than one question to voters, and presenting it as just one is unlawful.

Under the amendment, victims would have the right to be heard at plea, parole and revocation proceedings, the right to refuse defense attorneys' interview, deposition or discovery requests, and the right to attend all proceedings in their cases.

The amendment has broad bipartisan support. It was endorsed by both Republican former Attorney General Brad Schimel and current Attorney General Josh Kaul, a Democrat. Nearly 400 organizations and individuals have endorsed it.