SALT LAKE CITY — Since the Utah Supreme Court struck down a state law reviving old claims of sexual abuse, a state lawmaker says she will propose a ballot measure allowing voters to effectively bring it back.
"I'm committed to that," Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, said Wednesday. "I will be doing that during the 2022 session."
Romero made the comment at a news conference recognizing April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month, saying it can take years for people to accept what happened to them early in life, often at the hand of someone they know.
She joined advocates, law enforcers and others on the steps of the state Capitol to cheer new laws addressing sexual violence in Utah as well as an infusion of $3.4 million in state money to groups working to combat the issue.
One law that passed the 2021 Legislature brings Utah in compliance with federal standards designed to prevent prison rape, making it the second-to-last state to do so. Another creates a task force to study the deaths and disappearances of Native American women and girls.
Supporters of the measures signed a poster, pledging to "start by believing" instead of automatically doubting or dismissing a person's experience as a survivor of sexual assault.
Romero said she made a promise to her former colleague who sponsored the 2016 law. She told Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, that if the Utah Supreme Court ruled against it, she'd sponsor a legislative resolution to put the question before voters.
Ivory's wife, Rebecca Ivory, testified in favor of legislation removing time limits, telling lawmakers in 2015 that a schoolteacher abused her when she was a child. The emotional scars "never fully heal," Rebecca Ivory said.
The 2016 law permitted Utahns to sue until age 52 over abuse they endured while a minor, or if older, within three years of the law passing. A year earlier, the Legislature did away with any time limits for sex-abuse victims younger than 22.
The changes were among many across the country to extend or remove the window altogether. Nevada, California and Illinois have taken similar steps.
After Utah's law passed, a Utah woman sued a federal judge, alleging he raped her when she was a teenage witness and he was an attorney prosecuting a white supremacist serial killer in Salt Lake City in 1981.
Richard Roberts announced his retirement as chief judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia the same day Terry Mitchell filed a lawsuit against him. His attorneys had argued the claims were too old and Utah law would lead to a flood of similar allegations.
Utah's high court threw out the state law last year. In an "originalist" view of the Utah Constitution, Justice Thomas Lee wrote the right to a statute of limitation defense is vested — or unconditional — like the right to property, and beyond the reach of lawmakers to change.
Lee said it's not outside voters' ability, however, to amend the Utah Constitution.
"The constitutional amendment at this point is the only remedy," said attorney Rocky Anderson, who's represented Mitchell.
A federal judge last month dismissed her case with prejudice, barring her from bringing the case again even if a constitutional amendment ends up clearing a path for suits like hers.
Anderson called that decision a "total travesty." He said his client plans to appeal.
He's confident that a required two-thirds of Utah lawmakers would vote in favor of placing the question on the ballot for voters to consider. He noted Ivory's measure sailed through the Legislature with little opposition in 2016.
At the Capitol Wednesday, Romero also reflected on sexual assault-related measures that failed in the 2021 Legislature, which adjourned in March. One, HB78, would have required affirmative consent for sex and another, HB168, would have banned the sale of at-home rape kits.
"Those were two big big disappointments for us. We're going to continue to work on those," Romero said.
After the prison rape measure passed, Arkansas remains the only holdout, said Liliana Olvera-Arbon, executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
The measure, HB95, requires corrections officials to keep reports of sexual assault confidential and connect inmates who are victimized to mental health care. It takes effect next year.
Another law Romero brought, HB116, creates a nine-member panel to draw up model procedures for law enforcers investigating deaths and disappearances of Native American women and girls and present them to lawmakers ahead of a 2023 deadline.
"With the task force members, our focus is to help resolve this crisis that is devastating indigenous communities in Utah," said Yolanda Francisco-Nez, executive director of Restoring Ancestral Winds, an organization advocating for healthy relationships and healing in Utah's indigenous communities.
Francisco-Nez noted that Salt Lake City is among the top 10 cities with the highest rates of missing and slain indigenous women nationally, according to a 2018 report from the Urban Indian Health Institute. The city's police department has disputed that but has acknowledged there were problems with its data.