It’s the people’s Constitution, not the court’s

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Not everyone agreed with Montana voters when they approved Marsy’s Law as an amendment to the state Constitution, but the vast majority did, and we certainly think the voters knew what they were doing.

Fully 66 percent of them approved the victims’ rights law, which enumerated 18 specific rights for crime victims and created a substantial burden on cities, counties and law enforcement around the state.

Yet the Montana Supreme Court has now thrown out the constitutional amendment on the grounds that it violates the “separate-vote rule” in the Constitution.

Justice Laurie McKinnon, writing for the 5-2 majority, said, “The separate-vote requirement has two well-recognized objectives. 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.”

That’s great, Justice McKinnon, except Marsy’s Law didn’t fit either of those criteria. There was no confusion on the public’s part about what they were voting for. They wanted to protect crime victims. And the parts of the initiative all fit together to make a whole — they were not separate, unrelated amendments intended to trick the voters.

Was Marsy’s Law the perfect solution? No, of course not, but neither is any law passed by the Legislature. Might it need adjustment and correction? Yes, but that is why we have the amendment process in the first place — to fix mistakes made the first time around or to reflect changes in social understanding.

The Supreme Court, by putting itself between the people and their Constitution, has done grave damage to the social fabric that makes our democracy work.

The “separate-vote rule” has devolved into a mechanism to protect the status quo as it invites special-interest groups to parse every constitutional initiative for some obscure reason to overturn the people’s will.

Marsy’s Law would have made the job of newspapers harder in some ways, and it would have made the jobs of law-enforcement harder in many ways, but that should not be an excuse for continuing to put criminals ahead of victims.

The Supreme Court blew it in this decision, and it’s not the first time an initiative has been overturned on these same grounds. The people should have the right to amend their Constitution in the way they deem appropriate, without having to separate each complicated initiative into a jumble of separate and confusing ballot issues that meet legal muster.

In fact, that way makes no sense, as the people might approve some components of Marsy’s Law, but reject others, even though they are all needed to work together in the way they are intended.

Not every state has a “separate-vote rule,” and it seems the people of Montana should consider an initiative to do away with that pernicious restriction on their freedom — IF the Supreme Court allows them to!

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