Pa. House agrees to fast-track legislation to salvage sex abuse reform; Senate still uncommitted

By: - February 4, 2021 2:59 pm

Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, was abused by a priest as a child and has been at the forefront of the PA General Assembly’s attempts to adjust laws for victims of childhood sexual abuse (Capital-Star photo).

The Pennsylvania House has reached a bipartisan agreement to use a seldom-invoked emergency power to salvage a constitutional amendment that will allow childhood sex abuse survivors to sue perpetrators in old cases, a maneuver that would potentially allow voters to ratify the measure in May.

The deal would effectively undo an administrative snafu revealed earlier this week, when Wolf administration officials announced they did not publicly advertise the proposed amendment last year as required. But the deal may still lack support in the state Senate to be approved.

Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, whose office is responsible for that advertising, is set to step down on Friday after accepting responsibility for the failure, which drew bipartisan backlash.

Top Pa. election official Boockvar to step down after error delays sex abuse reform

The administrative misstep unraveled nearly two years of work on the amendment effort. The General Assembly first approved the provision in 2019 and was on track to do so again this spring, with plans to present the ballot question to voters in May.

The deal to salvage the referendum was announced on the House floor by Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, on Thursday afternoon. Rozzi, who was abused as a child by a Catholic priest, has been the public face of the effort.

House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, confirmed the deal soon after in brief floor remarks. The bill will be sponsored by Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair, who also was subject to sexual abuse as a child.

“The gravity of the error from the state departments handling of this was such that all parties wanted to get together as quickly as possible to find a solution because people, victims, are still counting on us to keep this moving forward,” Gregory told the Capital-Star.

Whether the deal has the support it needs to make it all the way to voters is unclear. 

The original constitutional amendment, sponsored by Gregory and Rozzi, passed the GOP-controlled House 187-15 last week. That’s 51 votes more than the two-thirds majority needed for an emergency amendment.

In his floor remarks, Rozzi said there was buy-in from the Republican-controlled state Senate. 

But a spokesperson for current Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, didn’t pledge full support just yet.

The upper chamber is “not committed to any specific legislative strategy, but [we] are committed to supporting the victims who were impacted by the Department’s extreme carelessness,”  Corman’s  spokesperson, Jenn Kocher, said.

If lawmakers have  to start it anew, the proposed amendment would not reach the ballot until 2023.

That because amendments to the Pennsylvania constitution typically take two to three years to take effect. Lawmakers must first approve the proposal in two consecutive legislative sessions by a simple majority vote. Then, the amendment appears on the ballot for voters to ratify. 

But using a rare emergency amendment provision will prevent the need for any further delay. 

The state constitution allows for emergency amendments “in the event a major emergency threatens or is about to threaten the Commonwealth and if the safety or welfare of the Commonwealth requires prompt amendment.”

If it’s passed by a two-thirds majority of both chambers, the amendment then goes before voters a month later, without the need for a second pass through the General Assembly.

House lawmakers indicated Thursday that they’d aim for a referendum on the new proposal during the state’s municipal primaries on May 18.

This emergency power hasn’t been used much. According to officials and state constitutional experts, it has only been used a handful of times in the 1970’s to authorize special assistance to private individuals harmed by natural disasters.

Bruce Ledewitz, a Duqesune University constitutional law professor and Capital-Star opinion contributor, said he expected a legal challenge if the legislature did move forward with the emergency amendment, citing limited precedent and influential group’s opposition to the civil window.

Efforts to enact a simpler statute of limitations window earlier this decade, culminating in 2018, failed under a surge in lobbying by the Catholic Church and insurance companies. 

They also had a powerful ally in former Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson. This opposition led to the constitutional amendment path in the first place.

While noting the likelihood of a challenge, Ledewitz also said that the higher bar for legislative approval of an emergency amendment made it more likely a court could rule the matter a political question outside a court’s jurisdiction and toss a legal challenge.

Rozzi agreed.

“No matter what we pass it will be challenged,” Rozzi told the Capital-Star in a text message. “There is no precedent for what is an emergency. Many legal minds say that it is what the [General] Assembly says it is by a [two-thirds] vote.”

Capital-Star Staff Reporter Elizabeth Hardison contributed to this story.

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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.