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Statute of limitations reform will top civil law reform in 2023 session

Del. C.T. Wilson, a Charles County Democrat and childhood sexual abuse survivor, said he has already pre-filed a bill for the 2023 session that would establish a way for victims to have their day in court. (AP Photo/File)

Legislators in Maryland have for years failed to pass legislation that would allow child sexual abuse survivors with out-of-date civil claims to have their day in court.

Advocates are hopeful that the anticipated release of the Maryland Attorney General’s Office’s 450-page investigation of sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Baltimore — along with changes in the makeup of a key Senate committee — mean that this time a bill will pass the General Assembly.

“If this isn’t the year, I don’t know what year is,” said David Lorenz, who heads the Maryland chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

The proposal, known as a “lookback window,” will be paired with legislation to abolish the statute of limitations for civil claims in childhood sexual abuse cases.

Statute of limitations reform promises to be one of the major civil issues for lawmakers when they gather in Annapolis for their 2023 legislative session in January.

“We’re taking this issue very seriously in the Senate,” said Sen. William C. Smith Jr., who chairs the powerful Judicial Proceedings Committee.

In years past, Smith’s committee has been a stumbling block for statute of limitations reform. Maryland lengthened the statute of limitations for lawsuits alleging child sexual abuse in 2017, granting abuse survivors until their 38th birthday to file claims.

But the law did not apply retroactively, so survivors whose claims were already past the statute of limitations did not get the chance to sue their abusers or the institutions that abetted them.

Lookback window legislation has passed in the House of Delegates repeatedly, but has sputtered in the Senate amid questions about its constitutionality. The 2017 law also included a “statute of repose” that may further insulate institutions from older lawsuits, though advocates for a lookback window say they should still have the chance to bring legal challenges in court.

Del. C.T. Wilson, a Charles County Democrat and childhood sexual abuse survivor, said he has already pre-filed a bill for the 2023 session.

He noted that two of the bill’s opponents on the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, Sens. Robert Cassilly and Michael Hough, are no longer in the General Assembly after seeking other elected positions this year.

That might give the bill a chance of getting to the Senate floor, Wilson said. He expects the attorney general’s report on sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, which has yet to be released publicly, will also shine a light on the need for a lookback window that will revive out-of-date civil claims.

“I’m sure the grand jury report will note there are quite a few victims who have been discovered through the investigation who have not had their day in court,” Wilson said. “We’re going to do a lookback window to allow their day in court.”

The Attorney General’s Office has asked to publish its investigation into the Archdiocese, which according to court records found more than 600 victims of sexual abuse and identified 158 priests accused of abuse over 80 years. (The report relies on records received as part of a grand jury investigation, so a judge must approve its release.)

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The legislative session will also likely include debates over expanding the powers of the Attorney General’s Office and finding a stable source of funding for Maryland’s access to counsel in evictions program.

Attorney General-elect Anthony G. Brown has said he plans to seek statutory authority to bring civil lawsuits in cases of alleged discrimination in housing and between sellers and buyers or businesses and vendors.

In Maryland, the attorney general must seek authorization from lawmakers to expand the role of the office, so Brown would have to take those requests to the General Assembly.

Brown, who takes office in January, declined to comment for this story.

Maryland’s Access to Justice Commission will also seek a sustainable source of funding for the state’s new access to counsel in evictions program, said Reena Shah, the commission’s executive director.

The expansive program seeks to ensure low-income tenants have legal representation in eviction cases. Maryland Legal Services Corporation is administering the program in partnership with legal services providers across the state.

The program was allocated $12 million in the current fiscal year’s budget and is set to receive another $14 million in the 2024 fiscal year. Lawmakers set aside that money from the state’s abandoned property fund.

But the access to counsel program will need long-term funding from lawmakers in order to launch fully by 2025 and continue in the years to come. Shah said a stable funding source is critical to give the legal services community the confidence to hire attorneys for the program.

“Last year we were able to secure two years of funding, but that’s only sort of start-up funding,” Shah said. “We really need to ensure a sustainable source of funding moving forward that will fund the entire program.”