The five justices of the South Carolina Supreme Court spent an hour closely questioning attorneys during oral arguments in Columbia today on an appeal that asks the court to overturn a lower court and return control of the name and assets of the Diocese of South Carolina to the recognized diocese of The Episcopal Church – The Episcopal Church in South Carolina.
The court has no deadline for issuing a decision, but courtroom observers said it is likely to come before the end of the year. The court’s practice is for the justices to confer and take a preliminary vote immediately after the oral arguments. Then, the judge who has been assigned the case will begin writing an opinion. The case will then be passed among the other justices in order of their seniority until the final ruling – and a dissenting opinion, if there is one – is reached.
Hearing the arguments were Chief Justice Jean Hoefer Toal, Justice Costa M. Pleicones, Justice Donald W. Beatty, Justice John W. Kittredge, and Justice Kaye G. Hearn. Presenting the appeal on behalf of TECSC and The Episcopal Church was Blake Hewitt, an attorney with the Columbia law firm of Bluestein, Nichols, Thompson & Delgado. Beaufort attorney Alan Runyan presented the breakaway group's arguments. Video of the hearing can be viewed online here: http://media.sccourts.org/videos/2015-000622.mp4
The appeal is the latest development in the situation created by a breakaway group under Bishop Mark Lawrence who announced in 2012 that they were "disaffiliating" the diocese from The Episcopal Church. That group then sued The Episcopal Church and TECSC over control of the diocesan identity and assets and parish properties. Some 36 parishes joined as plaintiffs in the case. After a three-week trial in July, Circuit Court Judge Diane S. Goodstein ruled last February in favor of the breakaway group. TECSC and The Episcopal Church appealed that decision to the state Supreme Court.
The courtroom on Wednesday was filled to capacity with attorneys, clergy and supporters on both sides. Bishop vonRosenberg and his wife Annie were present.
“Along with members of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina who attended the hearing in the state Supreme Court, I was gratified by the experience in the courtroom today,” the Bishop said. “The justices clearly were well prepared and familiar with the facts and nuances of this complex case, and they engaged the lawyers in forthright exchanges. At this point, there is no way to predict the outcome. However, this step of the process was fair and even-handed, which is what we hope for in our system of justice.”
Bishop vonRosenberg added, “Even as we make this assessment, may I call attention once again to the object of our prayerful intention: reconciliation with our brothers and sisters in Christ. That work will be ours to address as the Body of Christ, rather than depending on any court system to produce.”
Bishop Andrew Waldo of the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina and several others from that diocese also attended the hearing. The leader of the breakaway group, Bishop Mark Lawrence, was in the courtroom, along with a former bishop of South Carolina, the Right Reverend C. FitzSimons Allison.
At the start of his presentation, Mr. Hewitt told the court, “The Episcopal Church does not have a rule for everything, but it does have a plainspoken rule about the use of parish property and it requires a straightforward promise of loyalty from its leaders, including its bishops.”
“If people can break these rules, and vote away the consequences by changing civil documents before the mother church acts, that is not the freedom from secular manipulation that this court’s decisions so powerfully describe,” Mr. Hewitt said.
Justice Pleicones, who will become the next chief justice after Chief Justice Toal retires at the end of the year, asked Mr. Hewitt to discuss whether The Episcopal Church is a congregational church – a collection of autonomously governed churches – as Judge Goodstein said in her ruling. Justices expressed concern about that finding, especially since Judge Goodstein had disallowed evidence demonstrating that The Episcopal Church is actually hierarchical, with authority over its bishops and dioceses. “It seems by any definition, this church is hierarchical,” Justice Hearne said.
“Why isn’t this boiled down to who is the rightful bishop? And hasn’t the national church answered that question by ordaining Bishop vonRosenberg?” Justice Hearne asked.
Later, Justice Toal questioned why The Episcopal Church allowed Mark Lawrence to be ordained as bishop. Mr. Hewitt noted that the consent came only after Bishop Lawrence made a formal declaration that he would follow the doctrine and discipline of The Episcopal Church. However, he said, evidence now shows that “when he took his ordination vow, he had his fingers crossed behind his back.”
Chief Justice Toal inquired about whether Bishop Lawrence had the corporate authority to take actions like issuing quit-claim deeds to parish properties. “I’m going to be interested to hear about that, because the motivations are not lovely. They are unlovely. No question about that,” she said. And, during the trial, “you all were not permitted to get into exactly what was promised by the bishop to get his job as bishop and be put in that legal position.” Judge Goodstein barred any evidence about ordination vows in the trial.
Many of the questions revolved around the Supreme Court’s 2009 ruling in the All Saints case. Chief Justice Toal said that ruling means that under South Carolina law, an express trust can’t be created unless the owner creates it. Mr. Hewitt said that 29 of the parishes who are suing had done so expressly by publicly acknowledging their accession to the constitution and canons of The Episcopal Church after the Dennis Canon was adopted in 1979. And the other seven still would be bound by their previous accession to those governing documents, he said.
Only justices Toal and Beatty were part of the five who heard the All Saints case.
Chief Justice Toal asked about ownership of Camp St. Christopher, a property on Seabrook Island that is the largest asset held by the diocese. She asked: If its title is held by the Trustees of the Diocese – not the separate nonprofit corporation – then are they bound to the true diocese of The Episcopal Church? Mr. Hewitt replied that they are.
U.S. District Court Judge C. Weston Houck’s ruling on Monday to stay a decision in a federal case, vonRosenberg v. Lawrence, also came up in the hearing. “Judge Houck decided to lateral the ball back to us,” Chief Justice Toal said, drawing some laughter in the courtroom. But she added, “That’s not to say we’re not going to lateral it back to them.”
Each side had 20 minutes to make its case; Mr. Hewitt’s presentation went on an additional 10 minutes with permission from the justices as he continued to answer their questions. Mr. Runyan spoken and answered questions for about 25 minutes. The remaining 5 minutes were for Mr. Hewitt’s concluding remarks and a few final questions. The entire hearing lasted about 1 hour.
“The court gave careful and deliberate attention to the complicated issues in this case, and we are gratified by their consideration,” Thomas S. Tisdale, Jr., Chancellor of TECSC, said.