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

By: and - March 15, 2021 6:39 pm

Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair, at a Pa. House hearing in Feb. 2020. (Pa. House photo)

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.

Pa. House agrees to fast-track legislation to salvage sex abuse reform; Senate still uncommitted

While the power has been used, it has only been to respond to small natural disasters, mostly to provide temporary financial relief.

Now, this obscure method will be used to challenge two entrenched lobbies that have blocked change for years — the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and insurance companies, who’ve opposed a flood of retroactive lawsuits would lead to massive payouts to survivors.

The policy lawmakers are trying to salvage was first recommended in a 2018 grand jury report detailing decades of sexual abuse and cover-up in Pennsylvania’s Catholic dioceses. 

Lawmakers tried to enact it in state statute in late 2018. The Republican-controlled House to push a statutory window for lawsuits fell apart in the GOP Senate due to opposition from then-Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson.

The two chambers agreed in 2019 to approve a constitutional amendment to protect it from legal challenges, before the administrative snafu doomed that effort. 

That threat of legal challenges now looms anew, Knowles pointed out, and he feared giving survivors false hope.

But Gregory’s concern was that without swift action through the emergency amendment, the reforms’ powerful foes “who are trying to run out the clock on this issue, will get two more years to do just that. And that’s plenty of time to stop it from happening at all.”

Other conservatives were on board with the emergency measure. Rep. Dan Moul, R-Adams, said he’d vote for the proposal, and expected it would win the broad two-third majority needed to pass the House, given the issues’ nonpartisan nature. 

But he still didn’t think that the Legislature should insert itself back in a matter it had already addressed “properly” with the earlier constitutional amendment.

“Let the governor own it. It was his person that screwed it up. Let him take the beating on it. If we do it, and it fails, now we’ve put that on our lap. Right now it’s his person that screwed this up,” Moul told the Capital-Star.

For Gregory, failure, was not an option. “We’re legislators. People expect us to get things done,” he said. “They send us here to come up with solutions. This is a solution and we owe it to them to try.”

Either way, he isn’t trying to overthink the coming floor debate.

“Keeping my expectations low helps keep my serenity high,” Gregory said.

A final House vote on Gregory’s measure is scheduled for Wednesday, according to a voting schedule released by House Republican leadership.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.

Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.