As Gov. Tom Wolf puts pen to paper to sign bills into law in the Governor's Reception Room today, the one piece of legislation that drew more scrutiny than perhaps any other during this term will not be among those receiving that authorizing signature. And with few, if any, substantive session days remaining in the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s 2015-2016 term, it appears that that bill, which would reform Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations for instances of child sex abuse will have to wait for another session.
The bill in its final form would have completely removed the criminal statute of limitations for child sex abuse and other specific sexual offense cases, and similarly abolished the civil statute of limitations in child sex abuse cases in certain instances, while at most putting a 32-year cap on when a civil action may be brought if the victim was under 18 years of age when the actions occurred.
It also would waive sovereign immunity in cases of child sexual assault when the state or local government acted with negligence.
The legislation left the House in April of this year with a provision sponsored by Rep. Mark Rozzi (D-126) that provided for the retroactivity component in civil cases, but it came back to the House in June with the retroactivity component stripped out of the legislation in an amendment sponsored by Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R-25), who – along with a bipartisan group of senators – believed the retroactivity component to be unconstitutional.
It was a position the chamber held firm to even in the last hours of legislature’s October voting session days, which were likely to be the last of this legislative term.
“We are hopeful in the waning hours of session the House will take action on a measure that will withstand a court decision,” said Senate Republican spokesperson Jenn Kocher. “We believe (the bill in its current form) will help survivors and not subject them to a lengthy court battle.”
Despite the disappointment of getting so close to the finish line, Rozzi, the proposal’s prime legislative advocate, plans to reintroduce the legislation once again, but without plans to compromise on the retroactivity component.
“I’ve compromised over and over, but the Senate has not compromised one bit; they have not moved one inch towards us,” he said. “At some point, the Senate has to come toward us to compromise. I’m done compromising.”
In October, Kocher argued such an “all or nothing approach” is “harmful to survivors and handcuffs law enforcement.”
While Rozzi remained firm on pushing for a retroactivity component, he did indicate he is willing to work on altering the legislation to get it across the finish line, even by putting in a window on when retroactive cases can be brought and/or adding a severability clause to the bill to save the other provisions should retroactivity fail in a court challenge.
“We have to take everything into consideration and see what their arguments are,” he said.
Before ending October voting session days, House Majority Leader Dave Reed (R-62) also said that work will continue between the House, Senate and governor’s office in the months leading up to the new legislative session to ensure a bill is agreed to that can become law.
“We’re committed to that issue because it’s too important to let it fall through the cracks,” he said. “We can’t give up on that issue until it’s resolved.”
Jason Gottesman is the Harrisburg bureau chief for The PLS Reporter, a non-partisan, online news site devoted to covering Pennsylvania government.