Judges deem law addressing child sex abuse unconstitutional

The N.C. Supreme Court building in Raleigh (File)

RALEIGH — A North Carolina law cannot temporarily lift the statute of limitations to allow people who were sexually abused as children decades ago to be able to sue in civil court, a three-judge panel ruled on Monday.

The measure, which had passed the state legislature unanimously in 2019, was designed to help child sex abuse victims sue the people who abused them and the groups who let it happen, The News & Observer of Raleigh reported.

Among other aspects, the law allowed any sex abuse victim to file a lawsuit in 2020 or 2021, even if they would normally have been barred because the statute of limitations already expired.

But the judges ruled 2-1 that that change was unconstitutional.

The two judges in the majority, Gregory Horne and Imelda Pate, wrote that previous case law says the state constitution bars the legislature from reopening the statute of limitations, even for “meritorious causes of action.”

The judges stressed that they felt bound by precedent and suggested that the issue may be better suited for the North Carolina Supreme Court to consider instead of the panel.

Judge Martin McGee dissented. He said the legislature can make such a change — as long as it passes the legal test of whether the change had a rational basis.

Other parts of the law, such as a section requiring training for teachers to spot signs of potential abuse victims, or a section making it a crime for people to fail to report child abuse to the authorities, were not challenged, the newspaper reported.

The bill had sailed through the Republican-controlled General Assembly with support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle as well as Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein. Lawmakers worked to rewrite several laws surrounding sex crimes in North Carolina following a series of nationwide abuse scandals involving the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America.

Stein had publicly pushed for victims to use the new law to go to court. It was not immediately clear whether the ruling would be appealed.

“I am disappointed with this decision,” Stein told the newspaper in a written statement. “I continue to believe it is constitutional and will continue to defend the law if the decision is appealed.”