SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Supreme Court has struck down a state law that allowed victims of sexual abuse to sue decades later, siding against a woman who alleged a former federal judge raped her when she was a teenage witness and he an attorney prosecuting a white supremacist serial killer.
The state’s high court ruled the 2016 law unconstitutional, finding the Utah Legislature did not have the authority to effectively erase statutes of limitation after they already timed out.
“The problems presented in a case like this one are heart-wrenching. We have enormous sympathy for victims of child sex abuse,” Justice Thomas Lee wrote in the 22-page opinion. “But our oath is to support, obey, and defend the Constitution.” Four of Lee’s colleagues concurred.
After the state law passed roughly four years ago, Terry Mitchell sued Richard Roberts, saying he abused her in 1981. Roberts announced his retirement as chief judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia the same day.
Mitchell said Friday she was not surprised by the court’s ruling but will continue to pursue justice, in large part to bring about change for others who have been victimized.
“I feel like they just put a welcome mat out to Utah for any predator that wants to abuse children,” Mitchell said. “It’s a predator-friendly state as long as this is the way we handle things, and it’s not right.
Her attorney Rocky Anderson called the written opinion “utterly bizarre” and a departure from the court’s own earlier rulings. He said his client will petition for a re-hearing, although such requests are rarely granted.
Anderson said 17 other states have passed laws like the Utah measure.
“The Supreme Court, in a total abuse of its power, just swept it away, leaving a lot of child sex abuse victims absolutely devastated,” Anderson said. “They’ve been completely shafted by the system.”
Lee, the justice who authored the opinion, quoted drafters of Utah’s Constitution and court cases from the early days of its statehood.
He wrote that the 2016 law stemmed from a “reasonable policy basis” tied to the recognition that it can take people many years to come to terms with what happened. But Lee said the right to a statute of limitation defense is vested — or unconditional — like the right to property a person owns. Those sorts of rights are beyond the reach of lawmakers to change, he said.
Anderson had argued lawmakers can interfere with those rights when they have good reason to do so.
“This is what happens when you use this supposedly conservative concept of originalism in interpreting the Constitution and you make up the history along the way,” Anderson said.
Roberts’ attorneys, in arguing for the $25 million case to be dismissed, said the law could invite a flood of old claims. He acknowledged the two had sex but said it was consensual and began after the trial.
A Utah-based attorney for Roberts deferred comment to his Washington, D.C.-based legal team. A lawyer there did not immediately return a message Friday.
As a teen, Mitchell watched as two of her friends were shot and killed by Joseph Paul Franklin, a white supremacist who targeted the black joggers at random during a cross-country rampage.
Robert, then 27, was seen as a rising star in Washington who was sent to prosecute a civil rights case against Franklin. Mitchell says the abuse began after he got her alone under the guise of preparing her for testimony.
She said she suppressed the memories of the abuse for decades, until Roberts emailed her in 2013 about Franklin’s execution in Missouri.
The Utah Attorney General’s Office investigated the allegations but did not file criminal charges, citing the age of consent at the time was 16.
Mitchell said the Utah Attorney General’s Office mishandled her case, including by sending Roberts an outside report on her allegation and other information she had provided, before she sued him and without her knowledge.
Mitchell said the state has failed survivors of sexual abuse on a broader level. She said she has been denied assistance from multiple agencies as she has dealt with trauma and its effects like migraines that often last nearly a month, and painful back cramps due to stress.
The office maintains it shared information in line with standard practice in criminal investigations and in compliance with state law.
“Terry Mitchell was undoubtedly victimized by Richard Warren Roberts,” Attorney General’s spokesman Richard Piatt said in a statement. He noted the office filed a complaint with the federal court where Roberts sat but it was tossed after he left the bench. The office sent copies at the time to Utah Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, as well as Rep. Jason Chaffetz, in hopes they would kickstart judicial impeachment proceedings, Piatt siad.
In this week’s court opinion, Lee noted voters have power to amend the Utah Constitution in a referendum. Anderson emphasized that former state Rep. Ken Ivory, who brought the 2016 measure, has publicly said he plans to push such an initiative.