Our system of limited constitutional government depends on political actors sticking to their assigned roles.
We often see push and pull between competing government powers. The governor complains about legislative inaction. Lawmakers bash the governor for taking emergency powers too far. Courts attract criticism for striking down a state law.
These examples involve government’s three branches — legislative, executive, judicial — defending their own power and acting to constrain encroachment from the other branches.
A current case in North Carolina’s court system highlights another key aspect of limited government. Rules within one branch of government limit officials’ ability to act.
The case deals with child sexual abuse. In 2019 a unanimous North Carolina General Assembly approved the SAFE Child Act. It raised the maximum age for an abuse victim to file a lawsuit. It also opened a two-year window for new lawsuits, no matter how old the alleged assaults. The window effectively set aside the statute of limitations for child sex abuse cases.
Gov. Roy Cooper signed the act into law. It had united support from the legislative and executive branches.
But the measure faced opposition in the courts. A split three-judge Superior Court panel ruled in December 2021 that the law violated defendants’ due process rights. Article I, Section 19 of the state constitution guarantees those rights.
A split state Court of Appeals panel reversed the trial judges’ decision on Sept. 12. Judge Allison Riggs rejected a defendant school system’s argument that the statute of limitations should offer protection from legal jeopardy.
“Defendant Gaston County Board of Education — 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,” Riggs wrote. “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.
“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,” Riggs explained.
Judge Fred Gore joined Riggs to revive a lawsuit against the Gaston County school board. But Judge Jeff Carpenter dissented.
Carpenter expressed no sympathy for child sex abusers or their enablers. Instead he questioned the Appeals Court’s ability to overturn a state court precedent. He invoked “stare decisis,” the legal principle meaning “to stand by things decided.”
“We are bound by the precedents of this Court and the North Carolina Supreme Court,” Carpenter wrote. “Stare decisis is not limited to decisions this Court deems well-reasoned. Stare decisis is not limited to decisions that produce desirable results. … The stability and predictability of our justice system requires that we adhere to the precedents of our Court and the North Carolina Supreme Court.
“We lack the authority to overrule the North Carolina Supreme Court, and it appears that my colleagues and I disagree on this point,” Carpenter added.
A 90-year-old state Supreme Court ruling dictates the proper course of action for the Appeals Court, in Carpenter’s view. The 1933 precedent is called Wilkes County v. Forester.
“Wilkes County and its progeny control this case,” Carpenter wrote. “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.
“In my view, the Majority is overruling several binding cases from this Court, and the Majority effectively overrules Wilkes, itself,” Carpenter added. “Because we are bound by stare decisis, I would affirm the majority order entered by the three-judge panel.”
The state Supreme Court could take the case in the weeks or months ahead. Justices sitting in the state’s highest court could agree with Riggs and Gore that the challenged SAFE Child Act provisions comply with the North Carolina Constitution.
But that’s a decision for those justices, Carpenter argued. It’s not one the Appeals Court has a right to make on it own.
Regardless of the case’s ultimate outcome, Carpenter’s dissent offers a strong defense of limited government. No matter the result, a government actor should respect the constraints of his authority.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.