Lawmakers want to use emergency powers to pass sexual abuse reform. Can they find the votes to pull it off?

Pennsylvania Capital-Star - States Newsroom [Harrisburg PA]

March 15, 2021

By By Stephen Caruso and Elizabeth Hardison

Six weeks after the Wolf administration revealed that a clerical error had derailed a years-long  effort to help survivors of child sex abuse, Pennsylvania state lawmakers are invoking a seldom-used legislative power to salvage it.

If the plan that lawmakers put in motion on Monday succeeds, Pennsylvania voters will be asked during the May 18 primary election to ratify an emergency amendment to the state constitution allowing child sex abuse victims to sue perpetrators in decades-old cases.

If it fails, voters will have to wait at least two years before they can weigh in.

The margin for error is slim. To invoke the emergency powers, the House and Senate will need two-thirds agreement on a measure that has eluded action for years. 

A Senate vote scheduled for Monday was delayed as of press time. But a committee vote in the House indicates that lawmakers can reach the two-thirds threshold.

On Monday, the House Judiciary Committee split 20-5 on the emergency amendment proposal.

The opposition included four Republican lawmakers who had supported the original amendment when it came up for a floor vote earlier this year.

That was before the Department of State announced in February that it had failed to advertise the proposal in newspapers, as required by law.

The mistake led to the immediate ouster of then-Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar. It also threatened to restart the clock on the two-year constitutional amendment process, which requires lawmakers to approve amendments in two, consecutive legislative sessions before sending them to voters. 

House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, proposed a solution last month: She suggested lawmakers invoke a provision in the state constitution that lets them fast track an amendment in just a month when a “major emergency threatens or is about to threaten the Commonwealth.”

Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair, who is a childhood abuse survivor, told the House panel Monday  that the Wolf administration’s clerical error qualified as “a man-made emergency of our constitution.”

Lawmakers who voted against the measure on Monday say Gregory’s argument stands on shaky constitutional ground. 

Legislative Republicans have spent the last year accusing Gov. Tom Wolf of abusing his executive powers while responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

They’ve levied similar charges against the state’s judicial branch, saying that the state Supreme Court overstepped its bounds by issuing directives about state election law.

Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-Schuylkill, said lawmakers would be guilty of “shredding the constitution” themselves if they used a broad interpretation of the document to fast-track an amendment.  

“If we think this is an emergency, then my question, is, why was it not an emergency last session when we began the whole process?” Knowles said, adding: “Why doesn’t everything become an emergency, for whatever reason we decide we want to make it an emergency?”

One constitutional legal expert told the Capital-Star last month that he expected a legal challenge if the General Assembly did use an emergency amendment.