The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the government cannot retroactively erase statutes of limitations, a defeat for prosecutors trying to pursue priests accused of long-ago sex abuse.
On a 5-4 vote, the justices struck down a California law that allowed prosecutions for old sex crimes. It was challenged by a 72-year-old man accused of molesting his daughters when they were children.
The case was closely watched because of sex abuse problems in the Roman Catholic church, but it also has implications for terrorism and other crimes.
Justice Stephen Breyer (search), writing for the court, said the Constitution bars states from revising already expired legal deadlines.
Critics argue that it's unfair to change the rules after witnesses are dead and evidence lost. Supporters of deadline changes, including the American Psychological Association (search), contend that child molesters aren't usually exposed until after statutes of limitations have expired.
Statutes of limitations vary by state and by crime, in some instances as short as one year for minor wrongdoing to no limit for murder.
Some states have extended their deadlines for filing charges in sex crimes, but California took the exceptional step of retroactively changing the time limit. Charges must be filed within one year after the victims file a police report.
"We believe that this retroactive application of a later-enacted law in unfair," Breyer wrote.
Stogner, a retired paper plant worker and veteran of the Korean War, was prosecuted in 2001 for molestation that began almost 50 years ago. Police were told of the allegations while investigating molestation claims against his sons.
His daughters said that he began molesting them when they were under age five and the abuse went on for years. One daughter said she became pregnant when she was 16, at a time she was being molested by her dad and brother.
The case gave the court its first opportunity to say whether states can retroactively nullify criminal statutes of limitations.
In a dissent, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that California should be allowed to punish "serious sex offenses" against children. He was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
The Bush administration had argued that a ruling against California would threaten the USA Patriot Act (search), which retroactively withdrew statutes of limitations in terrorism cases involving hijackings, kidnappings, bombings and biological weapons.
"No law like this has been upheld in the more than 200 years of our Republic," said Jeffrey Fisher, who supported Stogner in the case on behalf of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (search).
During the argument in the case in March, abuse victims picketed in front of the court.
Since the Roman Catholic Church became embroiled in a sex abuse scandal last year, more than 300 priests either resigned or retired because of allegations of wrongdoing.
The case is Stogner v. California, 01-1757.