Michigan Senate balks on Nassar bills amid backlash

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The Michigan Senate on Tuesday delayed plans to begin debating sexual assault prevention legislation amid intense lobbying from university, local government and business groups who fear the sweeping package could spark a wave of expensive and difficult litigation.

The fast-tracked legislation, inspired by the Larry Nassar sexual assault scandal at Michigan State University, sped out of committee two weeks ago with unanimous support. But after meeting behind closed doors for nearly two hours Tuesday, Senate Republicans emerged to end the session without taking up the bills or any others.

The full Senate still may vote on the legislation this week as originally planned, said Amber McCann, a spokeswoman for Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive. Lawmakers are expected to caucus again Wednesday on the bills.

Senate Republicans are “passionate” about the bipartisan package, McCann said, “but there are just a lot of questions about the details.”

There appears to be broad support in Lansing for legislation that would expand mandatory sexual assault reporting laws to include university and youth coaches or trainers.

But legal experts and advocacy groups have raised concerns with bills that would eliminate governmental immunity and give sexual assault victims up to 30 years to sue an individual or institution that harmed them.

Michigan’s 15 public universities on Monday sent lawmakers an analysis from the Dykema Gossett law firm suggesting the bills would encourage “a significant number” of new lawsuits. They would “produce significant additional contingent liabilities and greater financial exposure for state public universities and Michigan’s businesses, community and civic organizations, churches, schools and governments.”

Lobbyists for local school boards, administrators, community colleges, counties, townships and cities on Tuesday expressed similar concerns. They were joined by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and former Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Maura Corrigan.

Corrigan applauded efforts to protect sexual assault victims and punish perpetrators. But she said retroactively extending the civil statute of limitations and removing governmental immunity “will expose the state to billions of dollars in liabilities dating back 30 years” in cases that would be difficult to defend decades after alleged incidents.

As worded, the bills “will have lasting negative consequences for public and private entities across our state,” Corrigan wrote in a letter to lawmakers. The initial drafts “undermine well-established jurisprudential rules that serve our state’s commitment to just and speedy criminal and civil legal proceedings.”

Sen. Margaret O’Brien, a Portage Republican and lead sponsor on the package, was not immediately available for comment after session. She has called pushback on the bills “disappointing” but indicated she is open to changes that would not diminish “the integrity of the bills,” McCann said.

Sen. David Knezek, a Dearborn Heights Democrat who sponsored the civil statute of limitation bills, dismissed initial concerns voiced by universities.

“A good way to avoid a ‘significant number’ of lawsuits about sexual assault is to stop employing people who commit sexual assault on campus,” he wrote on social media. “I stand behind this package of bills that seeks to deliver justice.”

Groups such as the Michigan Catholic Conference and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan have also raised issues with the legislation. An ACLU attorney previously told lawmakers a bill that would change the statute of limitations in criminal sexual assault cases could be deemed unconstitutional.

The Catholic Conference on Tuesday urged the Senate to pass “key components” of the sexual assault prevention package but reiterated its opposition to retroactively amending the civil statute of limitations.

As The Detroit News reported in January, at least 14 MSU representatives were warned about Nassar’s behavior over more than two decades. The disgraced sports doctor sexually assaulted hundreds of girls and young women under the guise of medical treatments and is spending the rest of his life in prison on sexual misconduct and possession of child pornography charges.

Numerous victims have sued the university, alleging it and other institutions failed to protect them from a predator. The earliest known victim to complain about Nassar, Larissa Boyce, was in the Michigan Capitol Tuesday to watch the Senate session. Fellow victim Sterling Riethman voiced her displeasure on Twitter.

Universities asking the Senate to delay voting on the package “just showed every survivor exactly how much we’re ‘valued,’ ” Riethman wrote. “Shameful. Absolutely shameful.”

The Michigan Association of State Universities, in the Monday letter, asked lawmakers to hold off on voting until they have more time to study ways the legislation could affect different levels of government and private entities.

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce, in a subsequent letter, warned lawmakers that evidentiary records may no longer exist 30 years after alleged abuse, making a “full and transparent adjudication” difficult in potential civil lawsuits that may arise.

“While the legislation is intended to address the atrocities and aftermath of the Larry Nassar situation, we are concerned that the bills go much further and would subject Michigan businesses and other entities not related to the Nassar situation to an indeterminate number of lawsuits and civil damages,” the chamber said.