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Pa. Lawmakers Consider Fast-track Plan To Expand Abuse Lawsuit Window

Jacqueline Larma
Associated Press

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A bid to amend the Pennsylvania Constitution to give victims of child sexual abuse a new legal window to sue over otherwise time-barred allegations got new life Thursday, days after the disclosure of a paperwork error threw it into disarray.

Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, said on the state House floor that Republican leaders in both chambers were working with him and he hoped to get the proposed amendment on the spring primary ballot through an emergency process.

“We’ll be able to pass a standalone quickly and get this on the May ballot as originally intended,” Rozzi said.

The administration of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf disclosed Monday that the Department of State had failed to advertise the amendment during the 2019-20 legislative session, when the amendment received the first of two rounds of approval in both chambers.

As lawmakers were working to pass it again, the mistake came to light on Friday. As a result, Wolf’s top elections official, Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, is resigning.

Rozzi’s new plan is to pursue the measure as an emergency amendment that requires both chambers to support it with a two-thirds approval vote. If that happens at least a month before the May 18 primary, it can appear on that ballot as a referendum.

The goal is to give people who were victims of childhood sexual abuse a two-year “window” in which to file lawsuits that would otherwise be barred by the state’s civil statute of limitations.

“We have to find a remedy because these victims’ constitutional rights have been violated and we need to fix this problem,” Rozzi told his colleagues.

Senate Republicans have previously blocked passage of such a measure as a regular law, saying it would be unconstitutional. Instead, the two-year window had been going through the multi-year constitutional amendment process until Boockvar’s agency bungled the advertising requirement, setting back the process by two years.

The constitution’s fast-track amendment provision can be used when a major emergency that threatens safety and welfare has occurred or is looming.

Rozzi said on the House floor Thursday that the top-ranking leader of the GOP-majority Senate, President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, supports the idea of the emergency amendment process.

Corman spokesperson Jenn Kocher was less specific.

“As always, we look forward to reviewing any plan the House is able to pass over to the Senate and that includes an emergency constitutional amendment,” Kocher said.

House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, said on the floor that his caucus will work with Rozzi and other backers to get the emergency amendment through.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said he expects his chamber’s Democrats will support an emergency constitutional amendment, but they have not discussed it. Their preferred method is to pass a two-year window both as a law and as a constitutional amendment, he said.

The attorney general’s office said earlier this week that passing the window as regular legislation was the “quickest and most seamless approach.”

“While there are emergency constitutional amendment provisions, they have been used rarely, most prominently in unrelated emergency natural disaster situations,” said Jacklin Rhoads, spokesperson for Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

Boockvar has said the advertising failure was simple human error and has apologized for the mistake.