Legislature’s consistency needs work

| 11/6/16 | Editorial Board | Altoona Mirror |

Pennsylvania’s Senate Judiciary Committee decided last month that allowing retroactive access in civil lawsuits for child sex-abuse survivors would be unconstitutional.

The problem with that decision is that the Judiciary Committee is not a court and doesn’t have the power to rule officially on the constitutionality of any measure.

Regarding the important proposal in question — House Bill 1947 — Senate leaders should have permitted a vote on retroactivity by the full membership of the upper legislative chamber and, if the measure were passed and later challenged, there would have been a pathway for courts to settle the question.

A strong compromise version of HB 1947 that included retroactive access passed the House 180-15 in the spring.

In removing the retroactive portion of the bill — retroactivity fought by the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and Insurance Federation, two of the provision’s most formidable opponents — the Senate committee added a preamble with the claim that retroactivity would violate the state constitution.

According to the news and information service Capitolwire, over the past 10 years more than three dozen states have eliminated the criminal statute of limitations for top criminal counts and more than a half-dozen have imposed time windows or revived expired statutes to allow victims to come forth.

Capitolwire also reported that in every state where attempts to revive expired statutes of limitations have been challenged — California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Massachusetts and Minnesota — courts have upheld the reform as constitutional.

Meanwhile, about a month ago, Pennsylvania Attorney General Bruce Beemer offered the opinion that the proposed retroactive component was constitutional. However, the Senate Judiciary Committee ignored that opinion.

Pennsylvania lawmakers didn’t seem so deterred by the issue of constitutionality last month as they rushed to address a state Supreme Court ruling that had derailed casino slots-generated grant money for local governments.

There was no guarantee that the purported “quick fix” would have survived a court challenge, but many lawmakers had no reservations about approving it anyway.

A House analysis questioned whether the Senate’s language in the quick-fix legislation really addressed the high court’s stated concern about non-uniform taxation.

However, the biggest reason why the quick fix died was because the House added gaming-expansion amendments — involving daily fantasy sports, iGaming and gaming tablets in airports — that the Senate so far has opposed.

So, regarding the casinos, the Legislature sought to act hurriedly and let the courts decide the correctness of the action, but on the retroactivity right for sex-abuse victims, the General Assembly “ruled” on the constitutionality of HB 1947 despite not having the constitutional authority to do so.

What occurred didn’t spell the permanent demise of what “1947” sought to do. The issue will go before the new legislative session that begins in January.

Between now and then, new and returning lawmakers should reflect on the following words of state Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, a survivor of clergy sexual abuse and the strongest legislative advocate of “1947.” Rozzi said:

“To me, what the Senate is saying here is simple. It’s more important to stand with pedophiles and institutions protecting pedophiles rather than victims of sexual abuse.”

The Legislature should stick to its legislative role — period.

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