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Constitutional debate on Maryland Child Victims Act set for first in-court argument

Alex Mann, The Baltimore Sun on

Published in News & Features

Debate over the constitutionality of Maryland’s Child Victims Act, long argued in the legislature and, more recently, in legal filings, is set to take place in a courtroom for the first time this week.

The landmark law allows people sexually abused as children to sue those responsible, no matter how much time has passed. It was enacted last spring, with abuse survivors championing the measure as a long-overdue avenue to hold perpetrators accountable on the victims’ timelines.

A flurry of lawsuits followed when the law took effect Oct. 1. Complaints targeted churches, schools, youth correctional facilities and other institutions, with people alleging abuse by priests, teachers, guards and others in positions of authority over children.

Defendants moved to throw out lawsuits in at least eight cases statewide by arguing that the law is unconstitutional. In response, plaintiff survivors have defended the act, and hearings are beginning to be scheduled to settle the question.

The first comes Wednesday in Prince George’s County Circuit Court, where a group of men sued the Archdiocese of Washington, which includes five Maryland counties and is headquartered in Hyattsville. The class-action complaint says the abuse they allegedly suffered as young children at the hands of priests, deacons or other diocesan employees fits a pattern of abuse committed in the archdiocese.

Circuit Judge Robin D. Gill Bright is presiding over the matter, and it’s unclear when she will make a ruling. She could decide from the bench Wednesday, issue a written opinion later, or both.

 

Her decision is expected to trigger an appeal that is likely to end up before the Supreme Court of Maryland. That’s because General Assembly lawmakers, anticipating a legal challenge to the Child Victims Act, included a provision allowing a mid-lawsuit appeal.

Kathleen Hoke, a law professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law in Baltimore, predicts the losing side will promptly appeal to the Appellate Court of Maryland while simultaneously filing a request to the state’s top court to take the case, “to say, ‘Hey, don’t make us waste months and the intermediate court’s time. This is a very novel issue of Maryland law.’”

“My guess is that the Supreme Court will take it right away, and we won’t have to go through that intermediate step,” said Hoke, who testified repeatedly at legislative hearings about the sex abuse bill, becoming one of the foremost experts on the law and surrounding legal questions.

In a statement, the Archdiocese of Washington did not directly address whether it would appeal if the judge rules against the church, saying only that it was “continuing to evaluate its legal options with respect to the Maryland Child Victims Act, which has been challenged on constitutional grounds not only by the archdiocese, but also by the defendants in numerous other cases filed against public and private entities across the state.”

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