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The Utah Supreme Court may be overruled with a constitutional amendment on sex abuse

Terry Mitchell
Posted at 2:40 PM, Apr 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-02 20:15:01-04

SALT LAKE CITY  — A controversial decision about sexual abuse lawsuits by the Utah Supreme Court could be overruled by voters, if they pass a proposed constitutional amendment.

Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, told FOX 13 she plans to ask voters to decide whether to allow sex abuse survivors to retroactively sue their abusers in civil court. It revives a law passed by the Utah State Legislature with bipartisan support in 2016 that lifted the statute of limitations on civil lawsuits about sexual abuse. The state's top court ruled the law cannot apply retroactively.

"This time, I think the judicial branch got it wrong," Rep. Romero said.

The issue that voters may have to ultimately settle stems from a lawsuit filed by Terry Mitchell. She accused now-retired federal judge Richard Roberts of sexually abusing her in 1981, when she was a teenage witness in the high-profile trial of serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin. At the time, he was the prosecutor on the case.

Mitchell sought to take advantage of the law the legislature passed, bypassing statutes of limitations. The Utah Supreme Court was asked to decide if the law could be applied retroactively. Outside the Utah Supreme Court's hearing in 2018, the sponsor of the law told FOX 13 he always intended it to be.

But the state's top court disagreed and ruled against Mitchell. The justices declared the law could only apply to sex abuse cases moving forward.

"I think it’s one of the worst decisions possible," Mitchell's attorney, Rocky Anderson, told FOX 13 in a recent interview.

Rep. Romero is now planning to take the issue before voters. She expects support from her colleagues on Utah's Capitol Hill, who widely supported the original law. Rep. Romero noted it can take sexual abuse survivors years to speak up, and while a criminal case may not advance — a civil lawsuit allows it to be heard in some fashion.

"This is a way of holding perpetrators accountable and bringing justice to survivors who may not have been comfortable talking about this when they were a child but want to make sure this person doesn’t do it again," she said.

Mitchell herself has supported a constitutional amendment. At a news conference last year, she joined other sexual abuse survivors in calling for lawmakers to take action following the Utah Supreme Court's ruling.

"No one has ever been held accountable," she said at the time.

Rep. Romero said that she plans to introduce a proposed constitutional amendment in the 2022 Utah State Legislature. If it passes, it would go before voters later that year.

If voters approved it, the law will benefit a number of other people — except Mitchell herself. Last week, a federal magistrate judge dismissed her lawsuit against Roberts with prejudice, meaning it cannot be refiled again.

"She will be the only victim of child sex abuse not able to pursue her claims against her perpetrator," said Anderson. "It is a total outrage. It is the very definition of injustice."