Federal judge sends question about constitutionality of Maryland Child Victims Act to state Supreme Court – Baltimore Sun


A federal judge sent a question about the constitutionality of Maryland's Child Victims Act to the state Supreme Court, potentially speeding up a final decision on the law that affects numerous child sex abuse lawsuits.

The development stemmed from a federal lawsuit alleging that a Mormon priest sexually abused a girl in Prince George's County decades ago. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints asked a federal judge to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that the child sacrifice law was unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar first raised the prospect of a “certificate of question” about the act before the Maryland Supreme Court last month, essentially asking the state's highest court to define the state's law. Bredar ruled Friday that he would ask a question and ordered the lawsuit stayed until the Supreme Court provides an answer.

“The answer to this question is critical to the resolution of defendant's currently pending motion for judgment on the pleadings, and there is no governing appellate decision, constitutional provision or statute for Maryland,” Bredar wrote.

Bredar's decision comes as several appeals of Child Victims Act claims are pending in Maryland's appeals courts.

The law, which came into force last April, abolished the previous deadline within which people who were sexually abused as children could sue the perpetrators and the institutions that enabled their torture. When the law took effect Oct. 1, a flood of lawsuits flooded Maryland's court dockets, targeting churches, schools and correctional facilities over alleged abuse by priests, teachers and guards.

Institutions named as defendants in the lawsuits quickly challenged the Child Victims Act as unconstitutional. They made these arguments in their motions to dismiss the lawsuits. Maryland Circuit Courts have ruled in at least three cases, with two judges finding the law constitutional and a third in Montgomery County finding it violated the state constitution.

Defendants in cases in Prince George's and Harford counties took advantage of a provision in the law that allowed for mid-trial appeals. In Montgomery County, lawyers representing a man who said he was sexually abused by clergy in the Maryland-based Archdiocese of Washington planned to appeal the judge's ruling that the law was unconstitutional.

The Diocese of Washington immediately appealed to the Maryland Court of Appeals when a Prince George's County judge declared the law constitutional on March 6. The Board of Education for Harford County followed suit on April 1, weeks after a district judge there ruled on a child abuse lawsuit under the Child Victims Act.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs in the proposed Prince George's class action lawsuit – three men who say they were sexually abused by clergy and other employees of the Washington diocese – told The Baltimore Sun on Tuesday that they planned to file a petition with the Supreme Court this week Maryland reaches down and takes the church's appeal to the intermediate appeals court.

A certified question from a federal court works similarly to an appeal from a state court.

Appeals from a federal judge and several state courts on the same legal question have taken the child sacrifice law into new territory. Experts say the Supreme Court has several options, but it is unclear how the Supreme Court will proceed.

The Maryland Supreme Court had not yet received Bredar's question as of 3 p.m. Tuesday, said Bradley Tanner, a spokesman for the state judiciary.

As to how the Supreme Court would handle a certified question from the federal courts and upcoming state appeals on the same issue, Tanner would say only that the justices would follow Maryland law on certified questions.

Jonathan Schochor, whose firm is behind the proposed class action lawsuit in Prince George's County, said he believes the cases will be “consolidated and tried together at the Supreme Court level.”

“They fully understand that we are there. There may be a case pending from Harford County. And we will all be there together,” Schochor told The Sun.

It is also unclear how quickly the Supreme Court will act on the matter, but Schochor said he plans to ask the court for an expedited timeline for resolving the case.

“We will request an expedited decision because the [Child Victoms Act] is so important and meaningful to all Marylanders and of course to the minors who have been sexually abused,” said Schochor.