Mitchell v. Roberts

Docket Watch 2020

By Samantha Harris

Mitchell v. Roberts came before the Utah Supreme Court on certification from the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah.[1] The plaintiff, Terry Mitchell, brought claims against the defendant, Richard Roberts, based on allegations that he had sexually abused her when she was a teenager in 1981. Although the statute of limitations had already run on Mitchell’s claim, a 2016 law passed by the Utah legislature revived time-barred sex abuse claims if brought within 35 years of a victim’s 18th birthday or within 3 years of the law’s effective date, whichever was later.[2] Mitchell filed her claim within 3 years of the statute’s effective date.[3]

Roberts challenged the Utah legislature’s authority to enact a statute reviving time-barred claims. As an initial matter, the court noted that it agreed with the legislature’s policy judgment in wishing to revive time-barred child sex abuse claims.[4] However, the court held,

The original meaning of the constitution binds us as a matter of the rule of law. Its restraint on our power cannot depend on whether we agree with its current application on policy grounds. Such a commitment to originalism would be no commitment at all. It would be a smokescreen for the outcomes that we prefer.[5]

To analyze the constitutional question raised by Roberts, the court examined both its own precedent as well as historical evidence of the original understanding of due process and legislative power.

First, the court held that its precedents had long been clear that “the legislature lacks the power to revive a plaintiff’s claim in a manner that vitiates a ‘vested’ right of a defendant,” and that this limitation has long been extended to “the right to retain a statute of limitations defense after a plaintiff’s claim has expired under existing law.”[6] The court cited to a long line of its decisions holding that the legislature cannot retroactively deprive an individual of a vested right, including the right to rely on a ripened statute of limitations defense.[7] Some of these cases, while acknowledging the vested right limitation, also relied on the fact that the legislature had not made a clear statement that a revised statute of limitations should apply retroactively. However, the court confronted this issue directly in State v. Apotex Corp., and held that even when the legislature explicitly made a statute of limitations change retroactive, “the defense of an expired statute of limitations is a vested right . . . which cannot be taken away by legislation.”[8]

The plaintiff, Mitchell, argued that Apotex was an outlier and that the weight of the court’s precedent suggested that the vested-right limitation applied only when the legislature had not — as it had in this case — made clear its intent that a statute should apply retroactively.[9] While acknowledging some ambiguity in its earlier decisions about the relationship between the “clear statement rule” and the “vested-rights limitation,” the court disagreed with Mitchell, holding both that “the vested rights limitation on legislative power can be traced through our decisions for more than a century” and that “these statements of a hard-and-fast constitutional rule limiting the legislature’s power is consistent with the original understanding of our state constitution.”[10]

Specifically, the court found that the vested-rights limitation is consistent with the framers’ understanding of the due-process clause of the Utah Constitution.[11] That clause, the court noted, was originally understood as a “principle for enforcement” of the separation of powers in a system in which “the executive has the power to enforce law (not to make it), the judiciary has the power to adjudicate cases under existing law in accordance with established procedures, and the legislature has the power to enact general laws to govern behavior going forward.”[12] Thus, at the time of the Constitution’s framing, the due-process clause was understood to prohibit the legislature from encroaching on the power of the judiciary, including by “retrospectively divest[ing] a person of vested rights that had been lawfully acquired under the rules in place at the time.”[13]

The court also reviewed records of the state’s constitutional convention, which revealed discussions of “the concept of ‘vested rights’ in the context of the legislative power to enact retroactive laws” — discussions that further bolstered the court’s view that the framers’ conception of due process was linked to the separation of powers.[14]

The court then examined whether the historical documents supported the claim that a ripened statute of limitations defense, specifically, constitutes a vested right. The court noted that the year before the Utah Constitution was drafted, the court’s predecessor “defined a vested right as ‘title, legal and equitable, to the present and future enjoyment of property, or to the present enjoyment of a demand or a legal exemption from a demand.’”[15] The court pointed out that a statute of limitations defense seemed to fit within the definition of “a legal exemption from a demand,” and noted that its prior decision in Ireland v. Mackintosh[16] “provides compelling evidence that early Utahns viewed revival of a time-barred claim as an impermissible interference with a vested right.”[17]

Ultimately, the court expressed great sympathy for the legislature’s desire to increase the opportunity for child sex-abuse survivors to seek justice even when trauma or other factors had previously prevented them from coming forward. However, the first and foremost responsibility of judges is to uphold their “oath . . . to support, obey, and defend the constitution,” and they concluded that the constitution here was clear: “The legislature lacks the power to retroactively vitiate a ripened statute of limitations defense under the Utah Constitution.”[18]

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[1] Certification of Issue to State Supreme Court, Mitchell v. Roberts, No. 2:16-cv-00843 (D. Utah June 1, 2017), ECF No. 37.

[2] UTAH CODE ANN. § 78B-2-308(7) (LexisNexis 2020).

[3] Mitchell v. Roberts, 2020 UT 34, ¶ 2.

[4] Id. at ¶¶ 6-7.

[5] Id. at ¶ 8.

[6] Id. at ¶ 11.

[7] Id. at ¶¶ 12-17.

[8] State v. Apotex Corp., 282 P.3d 66, 81 (Utah 2012).

[9] Mitchell, 2020 UT at ¶ 19.

[10] Id. at ¶¶ 20, 25-26.

[11] Id. at ¶ 30.

[12] Id. at ¶ 31.

[13] Id. at ¶ 34 (quoting Nathan S. Chapman & Michael McConnell, Due Process as Separation of Powers, 121 Yale L.J. 1672, 1782 (2012)).

[14] Id. at ¶ 36.

[15] Id. at ¶ 43 (quoting Toronto v. Salt Lake Cty., 37 P. 587, 588 (Utah 1894)).

[16] 61 P. 901 (Utah 1900).

[17] Mitchell, 2020 UT at ¶ 44.

[18] Id. at ¶ 52.

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