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A constitutional amendment on sex abuse could override a controversial Utah Supreme Court ruling

Posted at 6:51 PM, Feb 02, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-02 23:44:40-05

SALT LAKE CITY — A proposed constitutional amendment could override a controversial Utah Supreme Court ruling on civil lawsuits dealing with sexual abuse.

Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, is pushing House Joint Resolution 4, which would have voters decide if the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits over child sex abuse should be removed.

"This is simply giving a survivor of child sex abuse the right to have their day in court. They still have to prove everything, they bear the burden of proof. But clearly they should have the right to have their day in court," he said Wednesday.

The resolution is a response to the Utah Supreme Court's ruling last year in a lawsuit Terry Mitchell brought against a former federal judge, accusing him of sexually abusing her as a teenager when she was a witness in a high-profile case against a serial killer. The state's top court ruled the law originally passed by the legislature could not be applied retroactively.

The decision angered sexual abuse survivors and victim advocates. Other lawmakers have threatened a proposed constitutional amendment.

Rep. Ivory told FOX 13 News in 2018 he always intended for the law to apply retroactively when he passed the original bill. He repeated that view in an interview on Wednesday.

"It couldn’t have been more clear that we intended to apply it retroactively," Rep. Ivory said, adding that it can take survivors of sexual abuse sometimes decades to come forward.

On Wednesday, Mitchell herself visited Capitol Hill to testify in support of his bill.

"I believe Utah is ready to face powerful predators and balance the scale of justice for the vulnerable," she told the House Business & Labor Committee.

She was supported by a number of other survivors who testified about what they have gone through, urging the committee to approve the proposed constitutional amendment. The leader of an advocacy group said 23 other states have similar laws allowing civil lawsuits to go forward and it has not brought an avalanche of litigation.

"Giving survivors the ability, for the legislature to share with survivors and to give the citizens of Utah the ability to share that message with survivors on the ballot, whenever it gets on the ballot, that we see survivors," said Rabbi Avremi Zippel, a member of the Utah Crime Victims Council and a sexual abuse survivor. "We see people just like me for our experiences, for the time it takes us to disclose and come forward."

Lawmakers on the committee were clearly moved by the emotionally powerful testimony, unanimously approving HJR4 and sending it to the full House of Representatives for a vote.

"Hopefully this bill will be passed and we can do something about the terrible tragedy you’ve experienced," Rep. Mark Wheatley, D-Murray, told those who testified.

Rep. Ivory cried as he urged a vote in favor of the resolution, discussing the impact of sexual abuse on others.

"In Utah, we protect children. We stand for children, we love children and this is a small step, but a critically important step to help these survivors of horrific acts heal and hold those accountable for these horrible things," he said.

If the entire legislature passes it, voters could decide the issue in the next election.