Gaston school board appeals ruling upholding SAFE Child Act

Rep. Dennis Riddell, R-Alamance, top left, and Sen. Danny Britt, R-Robeson, championed the SAFE Child Act in 2019.

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  • The Gaston County school board is appealing the state Court of Appeals' Sept. 12 ruling upholding North Carolina's SAFE Child Act as constitutional.
  • The Gaston County board is a defendant in a case tied to the SAFE Child Act. It opened a two-year window for victims of child sexual abuse to pursue lawsuits that would otherwise be barred by the statute of limitations.
  • The appeal to the state Supreme Court argues that the 2019 act deprives the school board of vested rights protected by the "law of the land" clause of the North Carolina Constitution.

Eight days after a split state Court of Appeals panel upheld North Carolina’s SAFE Child Act as constitutional, the Gaston County school board is appealing that decision to North Carolina’s highest court.

The Gaston school board is a defendant in McKinney v. Goins, a case challenging the 2019 Safe Child Act as unconstitutional. The board filed a notice of appeal Wednesday.

“The dissent by Judge [Jeff] Carpenter was based on the following issue, which directly involves a substantial question arising under the Law of the Land Clause of article I, section 19 of the North Carolina Constitution and which the Board will present to the Supreme Court of North Carolina for appellate review: Did the Court of Appeals err by overruling binding precedent in order to resurrect Plaintiff’s time-barred claims, when legislation retroactively reviving such claims ‘is inoperative and of no avail’ because it ‘takes away vested rights of defendants, and therefore is unconstitutional,’” wrote the school board’s lawyers.

“If permitted to stand, the Court of Appeals’ judgment will deprive the Board of its vested rights secured by the Law of the Land Clause in the extinguishment of legal liability for claims barred by the applicable statute of limitations,” the notice of appeal continued. “This constitutional issue was timely raised in the trial tribunal, which ruled in the Board’s favor and dismissed Plaintiffs’ claims as time-barred and not subject to revival. This constitutional issue was determined erroneously by the Court of Appeals’ majority.”

Judge Allison Riggs issued the 2-1 decision in the McKinney case on Sept. 12, her last day as a member of the state Court of Appeals. Riggs has since joined the state Supreme Court through an appointment from Gov. Roy Cooper. She would not take part in the high court’s discussion or deliberation of the case.

The SAFE Child Act opened a two-year window for victims of alleged child sexual abuse to pursue lawsuits years after they normally would have been barred from going to court.

Riggs wrote an opinion reversing a three-judge trial court panel’s decision to declare the act unconstitutional.

The case dealt with three plaintiffs who were high school students and members of the East Gaston High School wrestling team in the mid-1990s and early 2000s. Each plaintiff alleged physical and sexual abuse from coach Gary Scott Goins.

The SAFE Child Act gave plaintiffs a two-year window, from January 2020 through December 2021, to revive any lawsuits that otherwise would be barred by the statute of limitations.

“The majority below dismissed Plaintiffs’ complaint on the rationale that the Sexual Assault Fast reporting and Enforcement Act (the “SAFE Child Act”) — which revived Plaintiffs’ civil claims for child sexual abuse after expiration of the statute of limitations — was facially unconstitutional as violating due process rights protected by the ‘Law of the Land’ clause in Article I, Section 19 of the North Carolina Constitution,” Riggs wrote.

“Defendant Gaston County Board of Education (the “Board”) — who, per the complaint in this case, failed to protect the children in its care from a sexually abusive employee over a period of years — asks us to elevate a purely procedural statute of limitations defense into an inviolable constitutional right to be free from any civil liability for whatever misdeeds would be provable at trial,” she added.

“But affording all statutes of limitation that exceptional status is nowhere required by the constitutional text, nor is it mandated by the precedents of our Supreme Court,” Riggs wrote. “Because adopting the Board’s position would require us to strike down as unconstitutional a duly enacted statute of our General Assembly and disregard the narrowly crafted legislation designed to address a stunningly pressing problem affecting vulnerable children across the state, we decline to convert an affirmative defense into a free pass for those who engaged in and covered up atrocious child sexual abuse. After careful review, we reverse the trial court and remand for further proceedings.”

Judge Fred Gore agreed with Riggs to reverse the lower court. He did not sign on to her written opinion. Meanwhile, Carpenter dissented.

“I will start by noting our common ground,” Carpenter wrote. “I completely agree: Sexual abuse of children is vile. I agree that striking down legislation as facially unconstitutional is strong medicine, only suitable for clear constitutional violations. I also agree that the prohibition of reviving time-barred claims is not a textual one; the text of the North Carolina Constitution lacks such a provision.”

“But that is where our common ground ends,” he added. “We are bound by the precedents of this Court and the North Carolina Supreme Court. Stare decisis is not limited to decisions this Court deems well-reasoned. Stare decisis is not limited to decisions that produce desirable results.”

“We lack the authority to overrule the North Carolina Supreme Court, and it appears that my colleagues and I disagree on this point,” Carpenter wrote. He argued that a precedent case known as Wilkes County v. Forester should have guided the Appeals Court’s decision.

“Regardless of whether Wilkes produces a desirable outcome or whether it is a bastion of textualism, Wilkes is an opinion from the highest court in our state, and it exceeds our power to overrule it,” according to the dissent. “In my view, the Majority is overruling several binding cases from this Court, and the Majority effectively overrules Wilkes, itself.”

The same three judges split on Sept. 12 in two other cases dealing with the SAFE Child Act. In Cohane v. The Home Missioners of America, Riggs and Gore agreed to revive a lawsuit against defendants including the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte. In an unpublished opinion in Taylor v. Piney Grove Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department, Riggs and Gore reversed a trial court ruling and allowed the case to proceed. Carpenter dissented in both cases.