Court: Lawmakers Overstepped in Making Priest Abuse Cases Retroactive

Central Valley Business Times [Los Angeles CA]
December 27, 2006

•  Rules in lawsuits against Central Valley Catholic diocese

•  Says separation of powers violated

The California Legislature went too far in trying to make cases of sexual abuse by priests retroactive, the 2nd District Court of Appeal says.

In affirming Superior Court cases which tossed out two lawsuits because they were not filed in time, the appellate court says the Legislature overstepped its authority when in 1998 it expanded the limitations period for actions against entities that employed or supervised abusers until three years from the date the victim discovers psychological injury occurring after age 18 was due to childhood sex abuse.

The two cases involved lawsuits against the Roman Catholic Bishop of Stockton (as a corporate entity) that had been dismissed as being filed too late. After the Legislature reached back in time with its 1998 law, the plaintiffs sued again, but this time the appeals court says the lawmakers meddled in the business of the courts.

"[W]e hold the Legislature violated the separation of powers doctrine when it amended section 340.1 to revive childhood sex abuse actions where a final judgment had been entered under the statute of limitations that previously existed," says the appellate decision written by Justice Laurence Rubin.

"Once the judgments against appellants in the previous actions were upheld on appeal they became final for separation of powers purposes and could not be legislatively revived," Justice Rubin writes.

In the decision, the court noted that the issue is far-reaching.

"Although this issue may appear to be little more than a struggle between competing branches of government, waged on the turf of abstract and desiccated legal principles, it is ultimately about the competing rights of individual parties," it says.

"Although the Legislature was guided by understandable intentions in this case recognizing the need for an extended and revived limitations period due to the delayed discovery of harm that is inherent in childhood sexual abuse the separation of powers doctrine 'is violated when an individual final judgment is legislatively rescinded for even the very best of reasons,'" the decision says.


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