Legislature unanimously approves sexual abuse bill, breaks budget logjam

By: - May 27, 2019 5:10 pm

Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, is flanked by child sexual abuse survivors and Democratic lawmakers at a May 20, 2019, press conference opposing House Bill 2746, a Republican-backed measure to expand the rights of child sexual abuse victims that opponents say will actually protect sexual predators and the institutions that enable them. Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror

**UPDATE: Story has been update to reflect that Gov. Doug Ducey has signed the measure into law

After weeks of negotiations and a day of emotional testimony, lawmakers unanimously passed legislation giving victims of childhood sexual abuse more time to sue in civil court, which ends Arizona’s status as one of the worst states in the nation for survivors to seek redress and breaks a weeks-long impasse over the state budget.

Gov. Doug Ducey swiftly signed House Bill 2466 into law.

“This bill is an important step in providing victims of child sexual abuse the justice they deserve,” Ducey said on Twitter.

Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, who has championed the issue at the legislature this year, has refused to vote for the fiscal year 2020 budget until the bill was passed, and Sen. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, has stood with him.

Boyer wanted to extend the statute of limitations for victims of childhood sexual abuse to sue not only their abusers but institutions and organizations that ignored such abuse or allowed it to happen. The statute of limitations in Arizona currently ends just two years after a victim turns 18 years old.

In addition, Boyer wanted to give victims who would be time-barred from bringing civil claims under the extended statute of limitations an additional “window” to sue. That would have allowed anyone a limited amount of time to sue over past abuse, no matter how long ago it occurred or how old the victim.

That proposed window was the primary stumbling block, as some powerful GOP legislators blocked or opposed the bill over concerns that it would open the door to lawsuits against innocent people or organizations – such as the Catholic Church or the Boy Scouts of America or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which to varying degrees have silenced victims and protected their abusers – who would have trouble defending themselves against decades-old claims in civil court, where the burden of proof is lower than in criminal court.

Under the compromise plan brokered by Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, and approved by lawmakers on Monday, victims have until the age of 30 to sue in civil court. And those who are older than 30 have an extra window that lasts until the end of 2020 to sue. The new law goes into effect immediately after Ducey signs it.

In order to alleviate the concerns of lawmakers such as Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, who blocked an earlier Boyer proposal from advancing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, the compromise includes extra safeguards for defendants in lawsuits brought under the window. Allegations must be proven by a standard of clear and convincing evidence, rather than by the lower standard usually applied in civil cases. And plaintiffs who sue under that window are not eligible to receive punitive damages, which would limit the amount of money a defendant could be forced to pay.

Debate over the bill in the Senate became emotional, as lawmakers on both sides of the issue defended their positions and described the attacks they’ve been subjected to. Critics of Boyer’s proposals faced ads on social media accusing them of supporting pedophiles. Boyer and Carter faced threats of retaliation from fellow lawmakers, whose comments during a closed caucus became public when someone accidentally left a microphone on.

Boyer said he’s lost a lot of sleep over the issue, which he told colleagues was the most important thing they’ll take up all year. He vehemently refuted colleagues and other critics who said the bill was about victims and attorneys who were looking to line their pockets, which he called the most offensive thing he’d ever heard.

“There are two things that victims want. They want an admission of guilt from their perpetrator. You know why? They want closure. They want to move on with their lives. And they also want to make sure that child predators are exposed so no child after them has to undergo the horrific nature of what they went through,” he said.

Several lawmakers explained how close to home the new law hit for them, due to childhood sexual abuse experienced either by them or by loved ones. Carter spoke about her uncle, whom she said was molested by his foster parents and by members of a Catholic community when he was a child. And Sen. Victoria Steele, D-Tucson, who has spoken in the past about being sexually abused by a relative when she was a child, called her vote for HB2466 “the most important thing I have ever done in my life.”

Steele also criticized an unnamed colleague for saying on a radio show that the bill could result in people suddenly coming to the realization that they were abused as children.

“Speaking as someone who was abused more than 50 years, I can tell you truthfully, you do not forget. You don’t just one day remember. In fact, I wish, I pray every day I could stop these memories,” she said.

Some Republican legislators said they’d been concerned that extending the statute of limitations, and especially implementing a one-time window to file lawsuits, would be a free-for-all for attorneys to rake in money by filing lawsuits. Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, said she’d been concerned it would create a “legal paradise for every ambulance-chasing lawyer in the state” to sue teachers, doctors, social workers or anyone who volunteers with children.

But Farnsworth, who had voiced similar concerns throughout the process, said the amendment to HB2466 found the “sweet spot” between giving victims their day in court and protecting the innocent. Farnsworth said everyone, no matter how vile, is still entitled to due process.

Farnsworth said there’s been a false narrative in the media that he and others who opposed Boyer’s proposals were trying to protect predators.

“There is no one who wanted to protect predators. No one. There is no one who wanted a watered down bill,” he said.

Several lawmakers seemed worn out after weeks of fighting over the bill. Carter said the past couple of weeks have been tough.

“I have been threatened personally and professionally. People say that all of my bills are dead and many even say that my political career is over. I have been subjected to name-calling, punishment, and I have been told that many railbirds around the Capitol say that my bad behavior cannot be rewarded,” Carter said, using a term for Capitol insiders.

Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, said she was torn. Part of her wanted to vote against the bill because she doesn’t like being “blackmailed” over the budget. She ultimately voted for it, saying believes it’s a good bill. But she made it clear that she wasn’t happy about the way the bill came about, and said the bill could have been passed weeks ago if proponents had been willing to negotiate, a claim that Boyer denied.

“I see a lot of politics happening and deals that were made to hold the majority caucus hostage over the budget. I’m sorry that I can’t give kudos for that,” she said.

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Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Jeremy Duda previously served as the Mirror's associate Editor. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”