The Colorado Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down a new law that created a three-year window for people to sue over decades-old childhood sexual abuse on the grounds that the law violated the state constitution.
The Child Sexual Abuse Accountability Act violated the constitution’s prohibition on retrospective legislation, the justices ruled in a unanimous opinion Tuesday. The decision likely will end the recent influx of look-back lawsuits that survivors of childhood sexual abuse brought in the 18 months since the new law took effect.
The law, which took effect Jan. 1, 2022, allowed for adults who were sexually assaulted as children to bring lawsuits against both their assailant and, in some cases, organizations that ran youth programs.
The law opened a three-year window for such lawsuits for abuse that allegedly happened between 1960 and 2022, including claims that otherwise would have been barred by the statute of limitations.
But the Colorado Supreme Court found Tuesday that the measure violates a provision in the state constitution that forbids lawmakers from passing any legislation that is “retrospective in its operation.”
Lawmakers anticipated such a challenge when they passed the law, and told the justices in court filings that they attempted to write the law in such a way that it did not violate the Colorado Constitution.
Attorneys argued the law was constitutional because the constitution’s prohibition on retrospective legislation was meant to protect only individual’s rights, not the rights of the government or a school district, and argued that there was an overriding public interest in allowing victims of childhood sexual abuse to seek civil remedies.
The justices rejected their arguments in the 40-page opinion Tuesday.
“If the constitutional proscription… were required to yield to the policy preferences of the legislature, there would be no proscription at all; the legislature could make any retrospective law constitutional simply by proclaiming that the law serves a legitimate government interest,” Justice Monica Márquez wrote. “Such a back-end rational basis balancing of an otherwise unconstitutional law against the public interest would render the retrospectivity clause meaningless. This cannot be.”
The case came before the justices when Aurora Public Schools challenged the law after a woman filed a lawsuit against the school district in which she claimed she was repeatedly sexually abused between 2001 and 2005 by a basketball and softball coach at Rangeview High School. The woman was 14 when the abuse began, she claimed in the civil case.
“We certainly understand the General Assembly’s desire to right the wrongs of past decades by permitting such victims to hold abusers and their enablers accountable,” Márquez wrote. “But the General Assembly may accomplish its ends only through constitutional means.”
Victims of childhood abuse who brought lawsuits under the new law likely will not see their claims go forward, said Christopher Jackson, an appellate lawyer at Holland and Hart who was not involved in the Colorado Supreme Court case but reviewed the opinion. The ruling means that the law no longer applies, even to ongoing lawsuits.
“They’re stuck where they were before,” he said. “…If a plaintiff can put forward a good reason to say, ‘Even under the old law, we had an argument as to why we could bring this claim today,’ then you could settle or figure things out from there. But if they were relying entirely on this new law, they’re not going to have a lot of options.”
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