North Dakota's Supreme Court has ruled on a case disputing corporations as victims under Marsy's Law, but attorneys say the opinion doesn't address the constitutional amendment's victim definition.
Police and prosecutors have grappled with ambiguity in interpreting who is a victim by the measure's language after voters in 2016 embedded the victim rights initiative in North Dakota's Constitution.
The case before the high court involved a Bismarck man who was convicted of assault for breaking a man's jaw. Javonne Hunt disputed a judge's order he pay $27,500 to an insurance company for the injured man's medical costs. Hunt had agreed to pay about $3,200 for the injured man's out-of-pocket medical expenses.
Public defender Yancy Cottrill argued in April that Marsy's Law limits victims to human beings and corporations shouldn't receive restitution under the constitutional provision, which he also said conflicts with and overrides statutory language.
Justices on Thursday affirmed the order for Hunt to pay the restitution to Blue Cross Blue Shield, seeing no conflict in Hunt's dispute.
But the court didn't wade into the victim definition of Marsy's Law.
"It is unnecessary to determine whether the definition of a victim under (Marsy's Law) is limited to individuals," Justice Jon Jensen wrote in the opinion.
Aaron Birst, executive director of the North Dakota State's Attorneys' Association, said the opinion is a narrow one that doesn't change much.
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"This opinion pretty much allows the status quo from what's happening in the prosecutor world," Birst said. "And of course there's going to be plenty more litigation and finding out the bounds of Marsy's Law to come, too."
North Dakota prosecutors have differed across counties in their interpretations of the victim language in Marsy's Law, creating uncertainty which has led to withholding some traditionally public information, such as details in criminal affidavits.
Cottrill did not return two phone messages Monday seeking comment.
Burleigh County prosecutor Tessa Vaagen said the opinion addressed restitution in the facts of Hunt's case rather than interpreting victim language of Marsy's Law.
But she pointed to a section of the opinion as to why the justices declined to address the victim definition: "We have previously recognized that 'it is a cardinal rule of decision making to avoid constitutional confrontations where there are appropriate alternative grounds to resolve the case before us,'" Jensen wrote.
Additionally, Justice Lisa Fair McEvers concurred on separate reasons, noting future potential conflicts over victim restitution as likely to be resolved by recent legislation. Rep. Scott Louser, R-Minot, brought the bill McEvers referenced, which he said addressed "cleanup" of restitution language and no-contact orders imposed upon incarcerated persons.
State lawmakers in their 2017-18 interim studied the effects of Marsy's Law but reached no recommendations for legislation, citing the measure's placement in the state Constitution which may only be amended by another vote.
At least three other state Supreme Court opinions have cited Marsy's Law, all regarding restitution.