Influence Peddler of the Month – Marsy’s Law for Wisconsin

September 3, 2019

A group that has spent less than three years lobbying in Wisconsin and only about $1.6 million has scored a rare legislative feat and put a proposed amendment to Wisconsin’s Constitution to a vote by state residents.

The group, Marsy’s Law for Wisconsin, is the state arm of Marsy’s Law for All, a California-based organization that has pushed state constitutional amendments around the country to enshrine specific rights for crime victims in state constitutions.

Marsy’s Law for Wisconsin ranked third in lobby spending for the first half of 2019 and third in lobby spending for the 2017-18 legislative session among about 800 lobbying groups, the Wisconsin Ethics Commission said last month.

The national group, Marsy’s Law for All, showed up in Wisconsin in late 2016 and spent $15,000 lobbying on the victims’ rights issue. In late 2017 the national group formed a state chapter based in Madison called Marsy’s Law for Wisconsin and hired five lobbyists and persuaded the legislature to pass the proposed constitutional amendment for the first time.

Constitutional amendments must pass two consecutive sessions of the Legislature and be approved by voters.

The state group went on to spend nearly $1.2 million on lobbying in the entire 2017-18 legislative session, and another $384,500 in the first six months of 2019. In May 2019, the measure was approved a second time and put on the April 2020 ballot.

Mary's Law was launched by  Henry Nicholas, the billionaire co-founder of Broadcom, whose sister, Marsy, was shot and killed by her ex-boyfriend in 1983 in California. Nicholas was indicted earlier this year on seven drug trafficking charges. Last month, Nicholas entered Alford pleas on two of the charges and five other charges were dropped in a plea deal. Alford pleas acknowledge there is evidence to secure convictions, but do not admit guilt.

Across the country, the group has spent about $102 million in the 12 states where Marsy’s law ballot measures were approved between 2008 and 2018, according to Ballotpedia. Nicholas shelled out about $99 million of those contributions.

The amendment generally duplicates existing victim protections found in state law, but goes further in several areas. If approved by voters, victims would have the right to be heard at court proceedings, to refuse defense attorneys' requests for interviews, depositions or discovery, and to attend all proceedings in their cases.

Supporters of the amendment, which include law enforcement organizations, say it's important to protect victim rights in the constitution and not just in state statutes.

But opponents claim Marsy’s Law is dangerous because it could reduce the rights of accused people before they have been convicted of a crime, and that Wisconsin already protects victim rights in the state’s laws and constitution.

Article I, Section 9 of the state constitution enumerates several victim privileges and states: "This state shall treat crime victims, as defined by law, with fairness, dignity and respect for their privacy."

And Wisconsin became the first state in the United States to adopt a crime victim bill of rights in 1980, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

In testimony submitted to a joint legislative hearing on the proposal in January, the ACLU said: “ Marsy’s Law was promoted and funded by an out-of-state organization and is not tailored to Wisconsin. Its negative effects will likely be felt by prosecutors, defense attorneys, defendants, and even victims. Other states that have amended their constitutions with similar provisions have had significant operational issues which have created unintended consequences. Issues have included increased costs, delays in court proceedings, conflicts with open records laws, court scheduling conflicts, litigation related to conflicts with U.S. Constitutional provisions, definitions of victims that have been expanded to include retailers such as Walmart, and litigation from victims for unequal application or violations of the new constitutional provisions.”

For the record, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign also opposed the proposed amendment and testified against it.