The Pennsylvania legislature will not use an obscure rule to circumvent the constitutional process, even when the cause is as important as punishing sexual abuse, in order to undo a major mistake by the Wolf administration.
For years, sexual abuse survivors and their advocates have pushed legislation allowing them to seek damages against their abusers after the statute of limitations has ended. After years of hard work, compromise, and legal analysis, the last legislative session passed a constitutional amendment allowing a two-year “look back” window to permit civil lawsuits which would otherwise not be permitted.
The amendment should have gone on to a vote by the people. But the process collapsed when Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration failed to make the required public advertisements last year of a conventional constitutional amendment.
“The Wolf administration dropped the ball and failed to initiate the public review process, which gives public notice by clearly explaining the ballot question,” Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland) said in a statement. “As a result, they are now asking the Pennsylvania General Assembly to elevate this matter to emergency status to include on the May primary ballot. After careful consideration, it has been determined by the majority that this matter does not meet the emergency status criteria and does not correct the failure by the Wolf administration as it still does not properly vet this matter with the public.”
Constitutional amendments require the legislature to pass identical bills in two consecutive sessions. At that point, the Department of State must advertise the passage of the amendment in newspapers across the commonwealth. The Department of State also works in conjunction with the Attorney General’s Office to put the amendment in “plain English language” for the ballot.
This administrative failure resulted in the resignation of Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar. It also set back the clock on passing the amendment. At the time, it appeared the earliest it could appear on the ballot would be in the 2023 primary.
However, a bipartisan group of legislators sought to keep the amendment on the May 18, 2022 ballot by exercising a rarely used constitutional provision allowing an amendment to face voter approval, during an emergency, without a public advertisement and passage in two sessions. It’s a tool that has only been used three times, all involving flooding or storms in the 1970s.
Republicans, who control both chambers of the legislature, rejected the longshot effort, arguing it would spark a series of legal challenges and leave alleged victims of sexual abuse stuck in court. Better to go through the standard process and get a reliable result, they argue.
Across the rotunda, the House adjourned Monday without taking on the bill, after it had placed it on the bill calendar. Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R-Centre-Mifflin) promised to continue working on the issue. The motion to adjourn the House without voting on the amendment passed on party lines. The motion included a “yes” vote from the Republican sponsor of the amendment Jim Gregory (R-Blair), who told the House of Representatives he was frustrated, but will continue fighting for victims of childhood sexual abuse.
Meanwhile, Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, says he is working on a plan to provide the two-year “look back” window through regular legislation, while the slower conventional constitutional amendment process continues.
“It’s disappointing for the victims, for sure,” said Rozzi, who has spoken publicly about his own abuse at the hands of a parish priest. But, he adds, the double-track approach can work.
“I think it’s a very viable option at least to get something out of the House that way.”