The #MeToo movement has touched almost every industry in the past year, and legislatures have been under growing pressure to curb sexual assault and harassment in workplaces. But has the reckoning affected the law?
Early signs point to yes.
Sure, the resignations have been plentiful as allegations of sexual harassment have toppled lawmakers. A Stateline review found at least 32 lawmakers who left office in the face of such accusations. But lawmakers also have pursued broader changes in response to the movement.
Some states have placed limits on nondisclosure agreements (NDAs). Legislators also have cited the #MeToo movement in passing legislation to improve the testing of rape kits and to extend the statute of limitations for victims who want to file civil lawsuits against their abusers. And nearly every legislature in the county has reexamined its policies for dealing with workplace harassment.
Legislators say serial sexual harassers — including movie producer Harvey Weinstein, whose downfall after a wave of allegations last fall largely prompted the #MeToo movement, and politicians — have used nondisclosure agreements to continue to abuse victims. In many cases, the agreements were folded into financial settlements barring them from speaking about any abuse.
Tweaking nondisclosure agreements to limit how they may be used for harassment claims is an area of law previously untouched by lawmakers, yet six states (Arizona, Maryland, New York, Tennessee, Vermont and Washington) now have something on the books.
"I wanted to make sure we were seizing the moment," said Washington state Sen. Karen Keiser, a Democrat who sponsored NDA legislation enacted this year.
This year also saw the passage of a number of bills dealing with rape kits, prompting states to either test their backlog of kits or set forth new procedures for making sure they are tested in a timely manner. Pushed by survivors, many state audits of evidence lockers have revealed a staggering backlog of untested rape kits. Research from the Joyful Heart Foundation, an advocacy organization, found that state audits of inventory show there are at least 155,000 untested kits.
Alaska this year appropriated nearly $3 million to have its more than 3,400 backlogged rape kits tested by private labs, though no deadline has been set.
But not all states were willing to spend that kind of money, and in many cases they enacted changes to how police will handle rape kits in the future, rather than altering procedures for the kits already sitting on shelves.
In North Carolina, Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat, asked for $10.6 million to test the state's more than 15,000 untested kits while using existing funds to create a tracking system for rape kits. The Republican-controlled Legislature gave approval for the tracking system but denied the funding.
Proponents for testing rape kits argue it's important to test all kits, unless the victim is opposed, because it could be used to solve other open cases and exonerate those who are wrongly convicted.