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A man at a podium looks up toward a table of judges
Assistant Attorney Gen. Jonathan Fero, right, addresses the Colorado Supreme Court in March, 2013 in Denver in a case about the state's school funding scheme.(RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post via AP Photo, Pool)

Victims of child sex abuse in Colorado for whom the statute of limitations to file a lawsuit has run out would get another chance to have their day in court under a proposed change to the state constitution.

Voters would have to approve the amendment, which comes in response to a Colorado Supreme Court ruling in June striking down a provision in a 2021 law that gave victims of child sex assault dating back to the 1960s a three-year window to sue their abusers and the institutions that allowed their abuse. 

The court ruled the law, Senate Bill 88, violated a provision in the constitution prohibiting the General Assembly from reviving a claim for which the statute of limitations has run out.

But state Sen. Jessie Danielson, D-Wheat Ridge, plans to ask the legislature next year to pass a resolution referring a measure to voters in November 2024 that would narrowly amend the Colorado Constitution to let child sex assault victims bypass the expired statute of limitations in their cases. 

“The Supreme Court made a really devastating decision based on their interpretation of the constitution,” Danielson said. “That’s their job. OK. Our job is to continue to find a path forward to make sure that we are doing right by these survivors of child sexual abuse.”

It takes the support of two-thirds of the members of each the Colorado House and Senate to refer a constitutional amendment to voters. Senate Bill 88 passed by more than that margin and with bipartisan support, which Danielson said gives her hope her resolution will be successful. 

“I’m confident that the overwhelming, bipartisan support that Senate Bill 88 earned will carry into this coming session and that the vast majority of my fellow lawmakers will see their way to supporting this measure,” Danielson said.

The measure would then have to be supported by at least 55% of voters to pass. 

Danielson said she’s working with House Majority Leader Monica Duran, D-Wheat Ridge, on the proposal, as well as Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, and Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, D-Commerce City.

“It’s heartbreaking when you think you have a remedy and then that’s taken away,” Fields said. 

Michaelson Jenet said she interpreted the Colorado Supreme Court’s ruling as a directive to ask voters for permission.

“And so I want to ask the people,” she said.

It can take decades for a child sex assault victim to come forward

It’s not clear how closely the proposed constitutional amendment would track to Senate Bill 88. Danielson said those details haven’t been ironed out. “There is no draft, it’s very early.”

Lawmakers in other states, like California, have passed laws giving victims of child sex assault from decades past a window to sue. The measures were inspired by the worldwide Catholic Church abuse scandal and the fact that survivors often wait decades before they reveal their victimization, including a man profiled by The Colorado Sun in 2020 who waited more than three decades to tell his family that he had been abused as a child by a priest who was a constant figure in their lives.

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Until 2022, child sex abuse survivors in Colorado had just six years after they turned 18 to file a lawsuit. 

The Catholic Church was an opponent of Senate Bill 88. The Colorado Catholic Conference didn’t respond to a request for comment on Danielson’s proposal.

Public schools and local governments were also critics of the measure. Critics said Senate Bill 88 posed a major financial burden because of the legal costs stemming from how many lawsuits they would have to defend against. They also argued the measure was plainly unconstitutional.

Kevin Bommer, the executive director of the Colorado Municipal League, said his organization would evaluate Danielson’s proposal.

“CML opposed Senate Bill 88 largely based on constitutionality concerns, and the Colorado Supreme Court also found constitutional problems,” Bommer said in a written statement. “If legislation or a proposed referred ballot issue is introduced in 2024, then the League will review it on its own merits.”

There was already growing interest among child sex abuse survivors in pursuing a constitutional amendment, but it’s extremely pricey and time intensive to gather signatures. Danielson said she hoped a referred measure will spare victims that burden. 

The legislature reconvenes in January. 

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....