Faced with limited Republican backing, statute of limitations reform on thin ice in House

By: and - March 18, 2021 7:28 am

House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, speaks at a February 2021 press conference.

House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, stood on the House floor six weeks ago and promised that lawmakers would weild a seldom-used power to pass a last-minute constitutional amendment for childhood sex abuse survivors.

“I just want to personally say, I have made a commitment that our chamber, our caucus, will work with them to get this emergency amendment done, out of our chamber, and over to our sister chamber, the senate,” Benninghoff said on the House floor on Feb. 2.

The emergency maneuver was seen as the only way to salvage a years-long effort that appeared sunk just a day earlier, when the Wolf administration revealed that it had not advertised the proposed amendment, as is required by law. 

Now, facing down the procedural hurdles to get the amendment onto Pennsylvania’s May 18 primary ballot, some House Republicans have offered their support. But most are skeptical of bailing out Wolf with a legally dubious measure.

The Republican division could sink the emergency amendment, which requires a two-thirds majority, or 136 votes in the House and 34 in the Senate, to pass.

Benninghoff told reporters on Wednesday that “we have a lot of things on [next week’s] agenda, and we are continuing to work on these” things, including the emergency amendment. 

But Democrats accused him Wednesday of going back on his commitment, as the clock ticked down.

Lawmakers say they need to act this month to avoid running up against the state election calendar. All constitutional amendments must be approved by voters, and counties typically start finalizing primary ballots at the end of March so they can send them to registered military voters in early April. 

“We are here today, having been jerked around and we are left with very few options,” said House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia.

The measure appeared to be stalled in the House Wednesday afternoon, before Republican leaders positioned the bill for a final vote as soon as next week.

Conservative Republican lawmakers also withdrew unrelated amendments designed to make the proposal more appealing to their colleagues, such as a proposal to ban the direct deduction of union dues from government employees’ paychecks.

But regardless of timing, Republican and Democratic House officials said that the bill did not have enough support from the 203-member body as of late Wednesday afternoon to clear the two-thirds voting threshold when the bill comes up for a final time.

Democrats such as Rep. Mark Rozzi, the Berks County Democrat who has championed the reform measure, told reporters Wednesday that victims deserved to see their lawmakers vote on the proposal.

“If [Republican] members want to vote no, then vote no,” Rozzi, who was sexually abused by a priest as a child, said. “They have the opportunity so everybody can see so that they are willing to protect predators and protect the bishops that aided and abetted this.”

“Shame on us legislators,” he added.

Early signs of opposition

The measure that legislators advanced this week uses emergency powers to amend Pennsylvania’s constitution on short notice to give victims of childhood sexual abuse a two-year window to revive old cases in court. 

It relies on a broad interpretation of an emergency clause in the state constitution, which allows the Legislature to approve amendments in just a month if a disaster is threatening the Commonwealth. 

Amending the state constitution is typically a years-long process. Lawmakers must hold a series of votes over at least two years before sending the proposal to voters for ratification.

The House and Senate first approved the constitutional amendment for sex abuse survivors in 2019. Lawmakers intended to approve the measure for a second time this spring so it could appear on the May 18 ballot.

That was before the Wolf administration revealed it had made a clerical error that threatened to set the clock back on the entire amendment effort. 

The emergency fix seemed to be on track in the House as early as Monday, when a House panel passed an emergency amendment sponsored by Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair, another child sex abuse survivor, and proponent of the reform measure.

Lawmakers want to use emergency powers to pass sexual abuse reform. Can they find the votes to pull it off?

But there were also early signs of opposition. Five Republicans in the House, and four in the Senate, already have opposed the emergency measure in committee, including some who had previously backed the proposal in 2019.

Many voiced concerns that they were not using their emergency powers appropriately, with one lawmaker, Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-Schuylkill, arguing that he and his colleagues would be “shredding the constitution” if they supported it. 

Knowles, and three of the other “no” votes, had previously backed a non-emergency amendment to allow victims their day in court.

Gregory told the Capital-Star Tuesday that internal conversations with colleagues were not going well. He declined further comment at the time.

The Senate, meanwhile, approved another version of the bill Tuesday that introduced another potential sticking point. 

An amendment sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, makes clear that suits filed under the amendment can be brought against public institutions, such as schools, with no limit on the value of the settlements they may have to pay out. 

Will public institutions be held liable for decades-old abuse claims? Pa. Senate bill wants to make sure they can

Baker said lawmakers were flabbergasted when the Wolf administration revealed its clerical error in February. But she said the emergency route also opened an opportunity for them to clarify a potentially murky area of the original amendment that lawmakers approved in 2019.

Wolf signed a suite of accompanying reforms into law the same year, abolishing the statute of limitations for child sex abuse and waiving protections for public entities in future cases. 

Baker said lawmakers wanted those laws to apply to cases filed retroactively, too. The version of the constitutional amendment that her committee advanced Tuesday makes clear that current law will apply to cases filed under the two-year window. 

Rozzi said Tuesday that the changes would sink the bill entirely, since it’s not identical to what the legislature passed in 2019. 

Baker’s office disagreed. They’ve taken the stance that the amendment the legislature passes this year doesn’t have to replicate the one from 2019, since the emergency amendment procedure is separate from the standard one. 

“It doesn’t have to be identical to what was done in the past, because what we’ve done in the past is dead,” Mike Cortez, lead counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, told the Capital-Star on Tuesday.

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.

Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.