Riggs leads 2-1 Appeals Court decision upholding state 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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  • On her last day as a state Court of Appeals judge, Allison Riggs voted with the majority in three cases upholding the 2019 SAFE Child Act as constitutional.
  • The act opened a two-year window for victims of alleged child sexual abuse to pursue lawsuits that otherwise would have been barred by the statute of limitations.
  • Riggs and Judge Fred Gore revived three lawsuits tied to the SAFE Child Act. Judge Jeff Carpenter dissented. He accused the majority of overruling a state Supreme Court precedent.

The state Court of Appeals has split, 2-1, in upholding North Carolina’s SAFE Child Act as constitutional. The 2019 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.

In her last day as a member of the Appeals Court, Judge Allison Riggs wrote the majority opinion in two of three SAFE Child Act cases released Tuesday. Riggs left the Appeals Court to take Gov. Roy Cooper’s appointment to the state Supreme Court.

In McKinney v. Goins, Riggs wrote the opinion reversing a three-judge trial court panel’s decision to declare the 2019 SAFE Child 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, Judge Jeff 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 Tuesday 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. Carpenter dissented. 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.