Sunday, April 10, 2016

South Carolina Episcopalians account of the September 23rd, 2015 hearing on the Diocese of South Carolina

September 23, 2015

State Supreme Court Rips Goodstein Ruling, Questions Lawrence's Actions, Authority as Bishop (rev. 9/24/15) Chief Justice: "There's a big difference between this and the All Saints' case"

 COLUMBIA – It was a big day for the Episcopal Church and its continuing Diocese in South Carolina as the state's Supreme Court finally plunged into the myriad of legal issues raised by the nearly three-year-old lawsuit brought by ex-Bishop Mark Lawrence and 36 parishes trying to leave the Church with an estimated $500-$800 million of its property and financial assets.

 While oral arguments are poor predictors of outcomes, it was apparent today that the key issues on the minds of the five justices are exactly the ones the Church's legal team wants them to be thinking about when they consider their appeal of a lower court ruling, in which the breakaways were awarded the entire shooting match, including the Diocese itself.

The hour-long hearing was unquestionably the best day the Church and its continuing Diocese, known as the Episcopal Church in South Carolina, have had in any court since Lawrence filed his mega-lawsuit in early 2013.

 The session also provided a hefty serving of crow for the trial judge whose questionable management of the trial and pro-Lawrence bias did not escape the notice of the High Court.

 While neither side left the Court seeing victory, today's hearing offered the most balanced opportunity yet for the Church and the continuing Diocese to lay out its case..

Momentum was with the Church and its continuing Diocese.  Columbia Attorney Blake Hewitt was the first at bat this morning and used his time to carefully lay out the essence of the Church's appeal of the controversial ruling by S.C. Circuit Judge Diane Goodstein in Dorchester County last January. 

The justices interrupted his presentation nearly two dozen times (unsettling some of the clergy in the room who could only imagine giving a sermon in such an environment). However, Hewitt kept his presentation on track and the judges' attention on his case. Hewitt is one of the best appellate lawyers in South Carolina and his mastery of the history of the governance of the Episcopal Church and relevant legal precedents seemed effective in pointing the Court to a path that would keep the property and financial assets the Lawrencians want in the Church.

 Lawrence's lead attorney Alan Runyan followed Hewitt at the podium but was never able to get off the defensive. He was knocked off his game only minutes into his defense by the same barrage of questioning that Hewitt had used so skillfully to advance the Church's position. Runyan, who has made no secret of his personal contempt for the Episcopal Church, is the architect of an imaginative, but untested, legal theory Lawrencians and breakaways in other states hope the courts will legitimize so that ultraconservative congregations can exit their "liberal" hierarchical denominations with their property and financial assets in tact. But today's hearing seemed to suggest this will not be the case in which it will happen.

 The justices pounded Runyan with questions about the actions of then-Diocesan Bishop Lawrence, including his apparent rejection of his oath of conformity to the "doctrine, discipline, and worship" of the Episcopal Church less than six months after his 2008 consecration. They repeatedly asked him about the source of Lawrence's authority to independently issue quitclaim deeds to his parishes without the consent of the Episcopal Church.

 Of great interest to the justices was Lawrence's 2007 promise to the Church's bishops and standing committees that he intended to remain faithful to the Episcopal Church if they consented to his election. Lawrence had initially failed to get a majority of standing committee consents to be consecrated as a bishop in the Church. However. after making this promise, his second election was consented to, and he was consecrated Bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina in January 2008. 

Goodstein ruling ripped

 From the get-go, it was clear that the justices were baffled over last January's ruling by Circuit Court Judge Diane Goodstein in which she "found" that, contrary to two centuries of established judicial precedence, the governing structure of the Episcopal Church was not "hierarchical" as defined by the U.S. Constitution. "Hierarchical" means that there are levels of increasing authority in its governing structure, to which secular courts can defer when matters of authority, governance, and doctrine are factors in legal cases.

 Chief Justice Jean Toal said she was perplexed at how Goodstein came to the conclusion that the Episcopal Church is instead "congregational" in its structure, especially since she had refused to allow the testimony of the Church's expert witnesses on the subject while allowing those of the breakaways. "It disturbs me," said Toal. She said that in her opinion that part of the trial had been "unbalanced" and "one-sided".

 Even Jesus' disciples got dragged into the case when Toal, a Roman Catholic, noted that one of Runyan's expert witnesses at trial went to great lengths to explain Lawrence's place in the Apostolic succession which, she said, seemed to be evidence of the Church's hierarchical nature.

 All Saints', Waccamaw case may be out

 By far, the most stunning development today was a series of comments by the Chief Justice dismissing the relevance of the 2009 All Saints', Waccamaw decision to Lawrence's lawsuit. Until today Lawrencians were confident Toal would be their champion among the justices based on her influential role in writing the opinion in that case. Under Runyan's direction during his five-year tenure as a bishop, Lawrence seemed to do everything he could to replicate the actions taken by the breakaways at All Saints in preparation for this lawsuit. Today, it was clear that was a miscalculation. 

In the All Saints' case, the Court found that the parish's property belonged to the congregation and neither the Episcopal Church nor the Diocese of South Carolina. However, as the Church's attorneys have argued for years, the deciding factors in that case were very different. Toal actually wrote the opinion in that case, and Runyon's legal strategy is premised on his lawsuit being a simple extension of that ruling.

 Hearts sank among Lawrence supporters when Toal actually lectured Runyan on his argument that Lawrence's lawsuit is a kind of Son of All Saints. According to Toal, "There's a big difference between this and the All Saints' case." While Toal peppered both lawyers with questions about legal holdings in other cases, Associate Justice Kaye Hearn was equally aggressive in challenging them on the facts of the case.

 At one point Runyan was forced to explain that the governance in the Diocese was dispersed among the Diocesan convention, the Standing Committee, and the Trustees, and that the Bishop was more of a benign corporate officer. Of course, this is exactly the opposite of Lawrence's view, first espoused in 2009, that the bishop of a diocese is the sole authority in his or her own "sovereign" diocese. Goodstein's management of the trial raised eyebrows

 The justices' shredding of the trial court record was a bit of quiet satisfaction for Church lawyers who during the trial were bullied by Goodstein, who in turn appeared to be bullied by Runyan and his associates. In addition to substantive issues like "hierarchy" versus "congregational," the justices could not seem to make sense of Goodstein's conduct at certain points in the trial. They mentioned one instance in which Goodstein abruptly threatened to banish one of the Church's attorneys from practicing law in South Carolina for no apparent reason. Justice Hearn expressed dismay that Goodstein had allowed Runyan to interrupt the questioning of an expert witness with 28 objections, making it nearly impossible for the Church's attorney to even question him.


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