On a five-to-four vote, the court ruled that the Constitution bars states from revising already expired legal deadlines.
The decision will affect the ability of prosecutors to pursue cases of molestation and other sex crimes that come to light years after they were committed. The ruling is seen as having particularly profound implications for the prosecution of sex crimes involving priests and other members of the clergy.
The case that brought the issue before the high court involved 72-year-old Marion Stogner, who was accused of molesting his daughters when they were children. Stogner had been prosecuted for instances of sexual abuse dating back almost 50 years.
The ruling will affect a number of current cases, including that of two former Catholic priests charged earlier this week with molesting children when they were assigned to the Los Angeles archdiocese in the 1970s and 1980s.