Politics & Government

Jerry Brown vetoes statute of limitations extension for sex abuse victims

Invoking a legal tradition of “fairness” dating back to Roman law, Gov. Jerry Brown on Saturday vetoed legislation that would have extended the statute of limitations for some sex abuse victims.

The action was one of several high-profile vetoes Brown issued on the day before his deadline to act on legislation sent to him this year. The Democratic governor rejected proposals to make some drug crimes “wobblers” and to regulate how pharmacists distribute a new type of drug called “biosimilars” once they are approved by the federal government.

Senate Bill 131, by Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, would have opened a yearlong window for sex abuse victims who were excluded from a 2003 law that extended the statute of limitations. Opponents painted the bill as an attack on the Catholic Church, and the church’s political arm called it a money grab by trial lawyers.

Brown, a former Catholic seminarian, issued an unusually lengthy, three-page veto message.

“Statutes of limitation reach back to Roman law and were specifically enshrined in the English common law by the Limitations Act of 1623,” he wrote. “Ever since, and in every state, including California, various limits have been imposed on the time when lawsuits may still be initiated. Even though valid and profoundly important claims are at stake, all jurisdictions have seen fit to bar actions after a lapse of years.”

Brown said the reason for statutes of limitation is “one of fairness.”

“There comes a time when an individual or organization should be secure in the reasonable expectation that past acts are indeed in the past and not subject to further lawsuits,” he wrote. “With the passage of time, evidence may be lost or disposed of, memories fade and witnesses move away or die.”

The bill was backed by the National Center for Victims of Crime, the California Police Chiefs Association and the Consumer Attorneys of California. Supporters said the legislation was consistent with a growing understanding of the reasons victims of sexual abuse often wait years before reporting the crime.

Opponents of the legislation said the bill unfairly excluded public agencies, such as school districts, targeting private entities such as the Catholic Church. In a statement praising the veto, the Rev. Gerald Wilkerson, president of the California Catholic Conference, said the bill “was unfair to the vast majority of victims and unfair to all private and nonprofit organizations.”

The veto was one of 12 issued Saturday.

Among others, Brown rejected legislation that that would have given local prosecutors discretion when deciding whether a person charged with possessing a small amount of illegal drugs should be charged with a felony or a misdemeanor.

Under Senate Bill 649, by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, possession of cocaine, heroin and other specified drugs would have been downgraded to the status of methamphetamine, Ecstasy or hashish – “wobblers” treated as felonies or misdemeanors depending on the circumstances.

Brown said in his veto message that state officials dealing with prison crowding in California are preparing “to examine in detail California’s criminal justice system, including the current sentencing structure,” and that “will be the appropriate time to evaluate our existing drug laws.”

Supporters of the “wobbler” bill had said it would reduce recidivism by eliminating some employment barriers resulting from a felony record. The California District Attorneys Association opposed the measure.

Brown also vetoed Senate Bill 598, by Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, which would have required pharmacists to notify prescribing doctors when substituting a biosimilar for brand-name biologic products, including vaccines and complex medications for diseases such as cancer.

Brown said in his veto message that he supports the use of biosimilars, and he appeared to be perplexed by the controversy surrounding the requirement that pharmacists notify prescribing physicians when using them.

“This requirement, which on its face looks reasonable, is for some reason highly controversial,” Brown wrote. “Doctors with whom I have spoken would welcome this information. CalPERS and other large purchasers warn that the requirement itself would cast doubt on the safety and desirability of more cost-effective alternatives to biologics.”

Brown said that because the federal government has not yet issued standards for the use of biosimilars, the legislation “strikes me as premature.”

The bill was heavily lobbied, supported by drug companies and opposed by several health plans and manufacturers of generic drugs. Companies on both sides donated money to Brown’s re-election campaign account after the Legislature sent Brown the bill.

Brown also vetoed labor union-backed legislation that would have limited the use of paid signature-gatherers to qualify statewide ballot initiatives. Assembly Bill 857, by Assemblyman Paul Fong, D-Cupertino, would have required anyone seeking to qualify an initiative for the statewide ballot to use non-paid volunteers to collect at least 10 percent of signatures.

Critics said the bill would give labor unions, with their large memberships, an unfair advantage in California’s initiative wars.

Brown, who was successful in Proposition 30, his own initiative to raise taxes last year, said “requiring a specific threshold of signatures to be gathered by volunteers will not stop abuses by narrow special interests – particularly if ‘volunteer’ is defined with the broad exemptions as in this bill.”

In addition to the vetoes, Brown announced signing 21 bills Saturday, including legislation ratifying an agreement with Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval on the governance of the basin surrounding Lake Tahoe.

In an agreement reached earlier this year, California and Nevada will continue the two-state partnership known as the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, after Nevada passed a law in 2011 in which it would have withdrawn from the compact unless California made concessions to allow more development.

The Sierra Club and other environmentalists have filed a lawsuit in federal court, fearing the agreement will lead to more development in the region.

By late afternoon Saturday, Brown had 36 bills remaining on his desk, according to the Governor’s Office. He has signed 782 bills since the beginning of the year and vetoed 78.