In Pa.’s statute of limitations debate, state Constitution should be guide, not an excuse

 |”Greenleaf’s committee should weigh its potential remedies carefully, with the Constitution serving as a guide for action – not an excuse for inaction.” 

| 6/20/16 | PennLive Editorial Board |

The fate of a state House bill that would allow victims of sexual abuse to seek expanded civil and criminal redress could now rise or fall on language in the Pennsylvania Constitution that appears to bar the General Assembly from retroactively altering the statute of limitations in such cases.

The language in the bill, prompted in large part by the Catholic Church’s child sexual abuse scandal, was the topic of a three-hour hearing before the state Senate Judiciary Committee last week.

As PennLive’s Ivey DeJesus reported, lawmakers heard from five expert witnesses, only one of whom testified in support of the bill sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Ron Marsico, R-Lower Paxton Twp.

The bill would eliminate the criminal statute of limitations in such cases and expand the look-back in civil actions by an additional 20 years.

That’s hardly a balanced perspective. And it appeared to suggest – fairly or unfairly – that the Senate panel had its mind made up even before the badly needed legislation landed on its side of the Capitol.

Lawmakers were not helped either by the conflicting testimonies of the under-suspension Attorney General Kathleen Kane and her top deputy, Solicitor General Bruce L. Castor.

In a brief appearance, Kane begged the panel to pass the bill immediately and to work out whatever constitutional questions arose later.

Castor, the former Montgomery County District Attorney who took a pass on prosecuting ex-comedian Bill Cosby in the 1990s, pronounced the bill unconstitutional because it violates the “remedies clause” of the state’s founding document.

The Senate should weigh its remedies carefully, with the Constitution serving as a guide for action.

Opponents of the bill argue that the clause bars retroactively extending an expired statute of limitation because it mandates that “all courts shall be open,” and “every man for an injury done him in his lands, goods, person or reputation shall have remedy by due course of law, and right and justice administered without sale, denial or delay.”

But, as The Philadelphia Inquirer notes, the legal question is not a settled issue because it has not been addressed by the state Supreme Court, which remains the proper venue for such an argument.

An added wrinkle: The panel’s Republican chairman, Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, of Montgomery County, is a member of a law firm that represented a Catholic order in Delaware that was sued in 2008 by abuse victims.

As The Inquirer reported, there is no evidence that Greenleaf, who is not licensed to practice in Delaware, had any involvement in the case. Greenleaf also has not taken a public position on the bill.

But that has not stopped a lawyer who has represented abuse victims in Delaware for calling for Greenleaf’s recusal, adding further drama to an already charged debate.

As DeJesus reported, the bill was prompted by revelations of widespread sexual abuse in the Altoona-Johnstown archdiocese.

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput and the church’s lobbying wing, The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, have pushed back vigorously on the bill.

They argue that the extension of the civil statute, which would give someone until they are 50 years old to file suit, up from the current age of 30, would bankrupt parishes, shutter Catholic schools and unfairly punish believers.

Those are credible concerns. But they are undermined by Chaput’s plainly thuggish approach to pressing his case.

About a dozen House lawmakers who voted in favor of the bill, including some who attend Mass daily, were called out by name from the pulpit and in bulletins in what can only be described as a public shaming campaign – and one that skirts the limits of the church’s nonprofit status.

With the Senate scheduled to reconvene Wednesday and set to stay in session through the end of the month, the Judiciary Committee could take up Marisco’s bill as soon as the week’s end, positioning it for a vote by the full Senate.

One potential solution before the Senate, and one it appears willing to embrace, is extending the civil statute prospectively.

This would allow at least some victims to file suit, but it would almost certainly provoke the ire of many older victims, who would be timed out under the revised statute.

Greenleaf’s committee should weigh its potential remedies carefully, with the Constitution serving as a guide for action – not an excuse for inaction.

 

Print Friendly

Leave a Reply