Stein defends SAFE Child Act in NC Supreme Court filing

Attorney General Josh Stein Source: Jacob Emmons, Carolina Journal

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  • State Attorney General Josh Stein's office is defending the 2019 SAFE Child Act in a court filing at the North Carolina Supreme Court.
  • The high court will hear cases challenging a SAFE Child Act provision that opened up a two-year window for otherwise time-barred lawsuits from alleged victims of chlld sexual abuse.
  • State Solicitor General Ryan Park submitted a document on Stein's behalf arguing that “constitutional text, history, and precedent all demonstrate that the revival provision is constitutional.”

State Attorney General Josh Stein is defending the 2019 SAFE Child Act in a new court filing with the North Carolina Supreme Court. Lawsuits at the state’s highest court test the act’s constitutionality.

The legal issue involves a two-year window the SAFE Child Act opened in 2020 and 2021 for lawsuits from alleged victims of childhood sexual abuse. The window permitted lawsuits that otherwise would have been barred by the statute of limitations.

Acting on Stein’s behalf, state Solicitor General Ryan Park filed a court document Monday labeling the SAFE Child Act a “landmark piece of legislation aimed at protecting our State’s children from sexual abuse.”

The Republican-led General Assembly approved the measure with unanimous bipartisan support. The Attorney General’s Office “participated in the legislative process that led to the passage of the SAFE Child Act,” Park wrote.

Stein is now the Democratic nominee for governor.

Park’s court filing labeled the two-year window “an important part of the law.” The document offered two reasons for Stein to file a friend-of-the-court brief representing state government.

“First, the Attorney General has an interest in defending our State’s laws,” Park wrote. “The Attorney General serves as the State’s chief legal officer, and has the authority to ‘defend all actions in the appellate division in which the State shall be interested, or a party.’ Given these roles, the Attorney General has an interest in defending the SAFE Child Act’s revival provision against constitutional challenges.”

“Second, the State has an interest in ensuring that the SAFE Child Act can fulfill one of its core purposes: giving victims of child sexual abuse a meaningful opportunity to seek redress,” Park explained. “Protecting children is a ‘compelling governmental interest.’ That interest is furthered by the availability of civil actions that can deter abusive behavior and provide redress to victims of child sexual abuse.”

Stein’s brief shows that “constitutional text, history, and precedent all demonstrate that the revival provision is constitutional,” Park wrote.

Two plaintiffs suing the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte filed their own state Supreme Court brief this month defending the SAFE Child Act.

Identified as John Doe and John Doe 1K, both were “repeatedly sexually abused by priests of the defendant Diocese as children,” according to the April 22 brief.

Both had filed lawsuits against the Diocese that were dismissed as time-barred. After the General Assembly approved the SAFE Child Act, the plaintiffs filed new suits in April 2020, during the two-year window connected to the state law.

A trial court dismissed the suits in January 2021. The state Court of Appeals upheld those rulings in May 2022. The state’s high court agreed to take the cases in March.

The state Supreme Court brief emphasized the legislature’s reasons for reopening child sex abuse cases.

“As many as 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys suffer sexual abuse in childhood,” wrote lawyer Sam McGee. “According to the [Centers for Disease Control], this abuse can ‘affect how a person thinks, acts, and feels over a lifetime, resulting in short- and long-term physical and mental/emotional health consequences.’ These effects are known to include increased rates of heart disease, obesity, cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, risky sexual behavior, depression, and suicide.”

The petition cited an “economic burden on society” totaling “billions of dollars.”

“What the medical community now understands that it did not in the past, is that the very psychological damage done to victims of childhood sexual abuse causes them to delay disclosure of their abuse, if they ever disclose at all,” McGee wrote. “As a direct result of the abuse itself, victims delay ‘years, often decades, before disclosing to others that they have been victims of abuse.’”

The average age of disclosure is 52, according to the brief.

“It is against this backdrop that the General Assembly unanimously passed the SAFE Child Act, seeking to extend the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse, and to create a two-year window which ‘revives any civil action … previously time-barred’ so that victims to whom the courthouse doors had been locked could have their day in Court,” McGee wrote.

“The General Assembly explicitly saw this as a ‘one time deal’” for alleged victims who were at least 38 years old.

“Numerous cases are pending across North Carolina at this time presenting the issue of whether the General Assembly had the constitutional authority to do this, or whether it violated in some manner the constitutional rights of potential defendants in cases brought under the SAFE Child Act,” according to the brief.

The Diocese will have a chance to respond to the plaintiffs’ arguments in the weeks ahead. The two consolidated cases have not yet been scheduled for oral arguments.

Meanwhile, the state Supreme Court has not yet decided whether to take up McKinney v. Goins, another SAFE Child Act case. In that dispute, the Gaston County school board appeals a split state Court of Appeals ruling upholding the law as constitutional.

Current state Supreme Court Justice Allison Riggs wrote the Appeals Court’s September 2023 opinion in McKinney.

“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,” 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,” Riggs added. “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 Jeff Carpenter dissented from the 2-1 ruling.

“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.”