Fighting for victims in my home state PA legislators grasp at straws

HARRISBURG (April 3) – Two House lawmakers pushing back against a proposal to eliminate the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse civil cases have a problem with a leading advocate of the proposal.

The lawmakers say a legal expert advocating for the changes did so without disclosing major potential financial gains she’d receive if the proposal is enacted. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Ron Marsico, R-Dauphin, and Minority Chairman Tom Caltagirone, D-Berks, say professor and attorney Marci Hamilton is advocating for the legislation through her position at a law school. They say she is doing so without disclosing she could benefit financially as a plaintiff attorney.

“Ms. Hamilton’s apparent undisclosed financial stake in this effort to influence public policy in Pennsylvania is troubling,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to the university president. “To our understanding, the legislative enactments advocated for by Ms. Hamilton could personally benefit her in her role as a plaintiff’s lawyer specializing in the representation of those who allegedly were sexually abused as children.”

Hamilton, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York, dismissed the lawmakers’ claim that she would take on more clients as “speculative.”

“Yes, I am involved, it has never been a secret. They know full well that it has never been a secret,” she said in a brief interview Monday. “…It’s part of their process. They’re trying to find some way to get me out of the process, but they don’t have a leg to stand on.”

Hamilton, a long-time Bucks County resident, co-represents 16 plaintiffs in child sexual abuse cases filed against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. But she said those clients would not be affected by the proposed changes to the statute of limitations for which she advocates. She also noted that while she led the charge to change the child sexual abuse statute of limitation laws on civil suits in Delaware and Hawaii, she did not represent clients in those states. The lawmakers point to California, where they say she charged hundreds of dollars per hour as special counsel to clients.
Hamilton has promoted similar changes in other states, and while pushback against the proposals initially “shocked” her, she says, it is expected as the Catholic Church and the powerful insurance industry lobby against the proposals.What irked Marsico and Caltagirone was a letter Hamilton sent to lawmakers earlier this month supporting amendments proposed by Reps. Michael McGeehan, D-Philadelphia, and Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, to House Bill 342, which she wrote are “constitutional and sound public policy.”

McGeehan’s amendment would allow individuals, during the two-year window where the statute of limitations would be voided, to file civil charges in years-old child sexual abuse cases and would suspend sovereign immunity for school and government officials involved. Rozzi’s amendment is similar, minus the sovereign immunity suspension.

Currently, a child victim of sexual abuse has until the age of 30 to file civil claims in Pennsylvania. The McGeehan/Rozzi amendments would remove the cap
during the two-year period. This could potentially open up hundreds of decadesold, unreported cases where evidence may be inadequate, opponents say. Events revolving around grand jury findings on child sexual abuse involving the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia, as well as the high-profile scandal at Penn State University, have spurred calls from child advocates for the legal changes.

The Roman Catholic Church has opposed the “window” legislation here and in other states, arguing that it would be difficult to collect reliable evidence after so many years. The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania are lobbying against the McGeehan/Rozzi amendments and opposed similar proposals in the past.

“From an insurance perspective, you need to have some certainty when a claim and exposure on a claim ends. From an insurance perspective, that’s what a statute of limitation does,” said Sam Marshall, president and CEO of the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania.

He said voiding the statute of limitations would mean an insurance company’s exposure on a claim never ends, the policyholder’s premium payments would never end, and would cause uncertainty in an industry that relies on predictability.Marsico aired his concerns over the constitutionality of rescinding the limits for filing a civil lawsuit in these cases, the Patriot News reported. In a statement, Marsico said if the statute of limitations are removed and are not upheld in a court challenge, then it would mean more anguish for the victims.

Hamilton disagrees, as does McGeehan, who told the Patriot-News that similar legislation withstood court challenges in California and Delaware.

How Hamilton advocated for the legislation rankled Marsico and Caltagirone as well. She sent her advocacy letter to lawmakers on Cardozo School of Law letterhead, and signed it using her title as a faculty chair of the school’s public law section. Her advocacy letter touts expertise in the legal realm of child sexual abuse law, and notes a book she wrote regarding changes to the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse civil cases.

“I do what every other law professor does – take position in the public square on issues where I am an expert,” she said in response, noting she wrote the letter at the request of McGeehan, who sought her advice on constitutionality of his proposal.

Hamilton says her advocacy and representation of clients does not pose a conflict of interest under university rules, a concern the lawmakers raised. The university says it received the letter from Marsico and Caltagirone.

“The University has received the letter. We are not able to comment until after the Passover holiday period when we will respectfully respond to the Representatives,” a university spokesperson said.

The underlying bill, sponsored by Rep. Marguerite Quinn, R-Bucks, would prevent the public disclosure of names of child sexual abuse victims to the public by the court. During the Jerry Sandusky trial, the judge struck down a pre-trial request where several victims asked their real names not be used. Their actual names were then included in a transcript that is a public record.
House GOP spokesman Steve Miskin said the focus is on getting child predators off the streets, which means centering on changes to the criminal law, not the civil realm.

Source: Capitolwire: Lawyer advocating removal of limits on child sex abuse civil cases under fire from lawmakers. By Kevin Zwick, Staff Reporter, Capitolwire