Supreme Court rules it can’t retroactively apply law that extends statute of limitations for child sex abuse cases

The Utah Supreme Court has ruled that a plaintiff’s claims in a high-profile child sex abuse lawsuit against a former federal judge aren’t valid because the claims fall outside of the statute of limitations, despite a 2016 law change meant to give alleged victims of child sex crimes more time to bring up accusations.

The ruling, issued Thursday and written by Associate Chief Justice Thomas R. Lee, says that while the “problems presented in a case like this one are heart-wrenching," the court had to rule based on the Utah Constitution.

“We have enormous sympathy for victims of child sex abuse. But our oath is to support, obey, and defend the constitution,” Lee wrote, "And we find the constitution to dictate a clear answer to the question presented. The legislature lacks the power to retroactively vitiate a ripened statute of limitations defense under the Utah Constitution.”

The decision was unanimous.

In 1980, Terry Mitchell watched serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin fatally shoot two black Salt Lake City joggers and became a key witness in Franklin’s trial the next year.

She has since accused the federal prosecutor in the case, Richard Warren Roberts — who later became a federal judge — of sexually assaulting her repeatedly during the 1981 trial when she was 16. He has admitted the two had sex, but contends it was consensual. He was 27.

In 2016, the state legislature passed a bill allowing civil lawsuits against perpetrators of sexual abuse “brought within 35 years of the victim’s 18th birthday, or within three years of the effective date of this [new law], whichever is longer.”

The bill was in response to decades of research that proved “that it takes decades for children and adults to pull their lives back together and find the strength to face what happened to them." The previous statute of limitations for similar civil claims was within four years of turning 18.

“Fortunately [it seemed] for Terry, the Utah Legislature paved the way for child sex abuse survivors who require many years before being able to bring a lawsuit against their perpetrators,” said her attorney, Rocky Anderson, in a statement.

So, Mitchell filed a lawsuit that year, citing the new law. Roberts’ attorneys motioned to dismiss it, arguing against the “legislature’s authority to enact a statute reviving time-barred claims.”

Attorneys for both sides argued the matter in front of Utah’s Supreme Court in 2018.

In the Thursday decision, Lee wrote, “We would thus uphold the legislature’s decision if the question went merely to the reasonableness of its policy judgment. But that is not the question presented for our review.”

Anderson said in the statement that the Supreme Court’s decision defied lawmakers’ intentions when they changed the law.

“[W]e find this decision to be an outlandish example of judicial activism disguised as a purportedly ‘conservative’ application of an 'originalist’ interpretation of Utah’s Constitution,” Anderson said.

Attorneys in the case have 30 days to file motions based on the Supreme Court’s findings.