The South Carolina Supreme Court has decided to take jurisdiction of the appeal filed by The Episcopal Church in South Carolina over whether legal correspondence it is seeking as evidence should be disclosed in a lawsuit filed by a breakaway group against the local diocese.
A one-paragraph order signed on April 4 by Chief Justice Jean H. Toal states that a motion to certify the appeal to the Supreme Court is granted, taking over jurisdiction in the matter from the state Court of Appeals.
The appeal involves the legal right of the local Episcopal Church diocese to see correspondence between Beaufort attorney C. Alan Runyan and Bishop Mark Lawrence during the period leading up to November 2012, when the breakaway group “withdrew” from The Episcopal Church. Weeks later, the group filed a lawsuit in Dorchester County against The Episcopal Church and, later, TECSC.
During the discovery phase of the lawsuit, Circuit Judge Diane S. Goodstein denied a motion by TECSC to compel Mr. Runyan to produce the documents. TECSC appealed the decision in January, which caused the case to be “stayed,” or put on hold, in Dorchester County.
Attorneys for the breakaway group have complained about the delay, and in February they took the unusual step of asking the Supreme Court to step in and speed up the process, saying the case is a matter of “significant public interest.”
In spite of the stay, the breakaway group has continued to issue subpoenas for witnesses to appear and give depositions beginning as soon as this Friday, April 11. On April 1, TECSC filed a motion asking Judge Goodstein to quash subpoenas from the plaintiffs calling themselves “The Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina” and “The Trustees of the Protestant Episcopal Church in South Carolina,” and find them in contempt of court. Judge Goodstein has not yet ruled on the motion.
While the appeal has had the effect of delaying the case, its purpose was not to prolong the judicial process, but instead was necessary to protect important legal rights for local Episcopalians. The correspondence from Mr. Runyan that TECSC is seeking covers a time period when he was the attorney for the then-unified diocese, which included members of both TECSC and the breakaway group.
TECSC is recognized by The Episcopal Church as the continuing diocese in this region, and any attorney-client privilege that existed prior to the withdrawal belongs to TECSC, or should at least be shared by both parties, according to a memorandum filed with the court.
Some 1,200 documents are involved in the appeal, which is part of the discovery process by which both sides request and receive evidence. Through that process, TECSC already has uncovered evidence of long-held plans by diocesan leaders to leave The Episcopal Church and take church property with them. Earlier court filings by TECSC say that the 2012 “withdrawal” was the result of a scheme by several individuals that began as early as 2005.