The Pennsylvania House of Representatives moved forward this week on two proposals that would open a two year window for child sexual abuse victims to sue their abusers and the institutions that employed them.
The measures moved forward thanks to a special legislative session for victims of sexual abuse called by former Gov. Tom Wolf in the waning days of his administration. As part of the special session, the House passed House Bill 1, which amends the Pennsylvania Constitution to open a two year window to bring time barred claims against perpetrators of child sexual abuse. HB 1 garnered 161 votes in favor to 40 against. The House next passed House Bill 2, to statutorily create the two year window for victims to seek legal action.
Many experts and legal commentators agree that the Remedies Clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution prohibits a vested right, such as protection from claims that are barred by the statute of limitations, from being taken away by statute. That is presumably why the House passed a constitutional amendment in the first place. In spite of constitutional concerns, HB 2 passed by a vote of 134 to 67.
It is important to note that both bills remove sovereign immunity protection from governmental bodies. That means taxpayers will be on the hook when public school districts face a storm of litigation and damages, should the constitutional amendment advance.
The future of the bills in the Senate is anything but clear. Senate Republicans – who hold the majority – argue that a statutory two year reviver window violates the constitution and have stated that the only legal path forward is by amending the constitution. The upper chamber passed language to do just that at the start of session, which was coupled with two other amendments to expand voter ID requirements and expedite the process for overturning regulations imposed by the governor’s office. Senate Leadership is pushing the House to pass the constitutional amendments they acted on earlier.
In order for the state constitution to be amended, the same language must be passed by the General Assembly in two consecutive sessions and then put before the voters on a ballot referendum. The two year window reviver language was previously passed in two sessions, however, the process had to restart due to an error by the Department of State last session.