In a case against a former federal judge, the Utah Supreme Court is pondering a state law that allows victims to sue over alleged sexual abuse that happened decades ago.
Richard W. Roberts, a longtime district judge in Washington, D.C., retired last year after Terry Mitchell claimed he sexually abused her in 1981. Roberts has admitted a sexual relationship with his accuser, who was 16 years old at the time, but claims it was consensual.
The state Supreme Court is deciding whether the state's 35-year statute of limitations is constitutional. The Utah legislature answered that question two years ago.
In Utah Code Section 78B-2-308, the legislature declared that it takes decades for sex abuse victims "to pull their lives back together and find the strength to face what happened to them."
Rocky Anderson, representing the plaintiff, said it gives victims a chance "to find justice." Troy Booher, on behalf of the retired judge, said the statute opens "the floodgates" on old claims.
The justices asked them whether it is constitutional for people to face allegations in court so long after the fact. "These are really, really important questions we're being asked," said Justice Thomas Lee.
The case has raised other important issues, such as whether the judge violated ethics rules, but some questions will never be answered. The sexual encounters occurred when Roberts was a lawyer in a death penalty case, and Mitchell was a witness.
Roberts escaped possible criminal prosecution, in part because Mitchell was old enough to consent at the time. But Joseph Paul Franklin, a third party in the story, took the full weight of the law.
With Roberts prosecuting and Mitchell testifying, a jury convicted Franklin of a double-murder. Everybody moved on, until Roberts emailed Mitchell in 2013 to inform her that Franklin had been executed.
In her lawsuit, Mitchell says that brought back memories of what happened. Roberts took advantage of her, she said, by saying Franklin could get off if anyone discovered they had sex.