HARRISBURG – A House panel on Wednesday moved two proposals that would ask voters to amend the state Constitution – one to allow adult survivors of child sex abuse to sue even if their statute of limitations has expired and a second to have appeals court judges elected by region instead of statewide.
Both measures passed both chambers of the General Assembly in the last legislative session, so if they pass unchanged in the weeks ahead, voters could see them on the ballot in May.
The proposal to allow adult survivors of child sex abuse to sue their abusers and organizations like the Catholic Church, which covered up for child predator priests, was approved by the House judiciary committee by a vote of 24-1.
On the judicial districting measure, the House Judiciary Committee vote was 13-12, with two GOP members joining Democrats against the effort, which anti-gerrymandering groups like Fair Districts PA say, is designed to swing control of the state Supreme Court, where Democrats now hold a 5-2 majority. The full Republican-majority House can now consider it. Pennsylvania governors can’t veto constitutional amendments.
Gov. Tom Wolf made it clear he opposes the move to create districts for appeals court judges, including the state Supreme Court, the Superior Court and Commonwealth Court. Wolf said he’d rather see the state move away from electing judges entirely and have them appointed.
“This constitutional amendment is just another effort by Harrisburg Republicans to prevent the will of the people from being heard by stopping all Pennsylvanians from having a voice in selecting judges for the highest courts in the state,” he said.
Republicans in the General Assembly have been repeatedly angered by decisions by the state Supreme Court, which threw out and redrew the state’s Congressional maps, saying the old maps had been illegally gerrymandered by Republican lawmakers, and more recently ordered that counties couldn’t reject mail-in ballots over mismatched signatures and ordered that ballots that arrived up to three days after Election Day should be counted.
Proponents of the change say the state Supreme Court, in particular, has been too dominated by jurists from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
State Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, said that people in different parts of the state have different perspectives so the courts would benefit from what he called “geographic diversity.”
State Rep. Natalie Mihalek, R-Allegheny, voted against the measure, saying that while she agrees that the Supreme Court has been “highly partisan,” but she said electing judges by region “would make it worse.”
The lone negative vote on the proposal to open a window for lawsuits for adult survivors of child sex abuse was from state Rep. Paul Schemel, R-Franklin, who said he believes the legislation is unfair to the rights of people accused of crimes.
State Rep. Mike Zabel, D-Delaware, said he too thinks the statute of limitations “should not be tinkered with lightly,” but said that he believed the special circumstances faced by adult survivors of child sex abuse “warrant” the move.
“I’d be hard-pressed” to think of another situation where changing the statute of limitations retroactively would be acceptable, he said.
The issue of providing a means for adult survivors of child abuse to sue the church has been hotly debated at the Capitol since a 2016 grand jury disclosed evidence of decades of abuse by priests in the Altoona-Johnstown Catholic Diocese, and a 2018 grand jury report that found similar allegations of abuse by priests in the Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton dioceses.
The Catholic Church lobbied against changing the law and Senate Republicans had blocked efforts to change the law retroactively, saying it was unconstitutional. The move to amend the Constitution, which requires being approved in two separate legislative sessions before being put on the ballot for the voters, came as a compromise to overcome those Constitutional concerns.