Thursday, July 05, 2007

What Has Los Angeles to Do With San Joaquin?

I recently received an email from Jay Luther, who practices law in California. Jay brought up some interesting questions and insights that I thought some of you might want to discuss. So, with Jay's permission, here's his message:

The question, "Is there any chance that the courts might rule differently if an entire diocese attempted to leave, as opposed to just a parish?" is a good one.

Those of us who practice law in California are still trying to figure out all the implications of the 4th District's recent Episcopal Church Cases. One obvious implication is that the pending cases in the Fourth Appellate District, which comprises San Diego, San Bernardino, Riverside, Orange and some less populous counties, will be bound by the decision in the EC Cases, unless the California Supreme Court decides to grant review and sort out our now rather contradictory case law on the subject.

But other intermediate appellate courts are not bound by the Fourth District's ruling. Although the decision in the EC Cases is well-reasoned and persuasive, other Appellate Districts have previously reached other results. For example, the core ruling in the EC Cases may be this language:

. . . the right of the general church in this case to enforce a trust on the local parish property is clear, and that right has not been affected by intervening United States Supreme Court decisions or any statute enacted by the Legislature.
(EC Cases at 76).

By contrast, only three years ago, the Fifth District Court of Appeal ruled that any such trust is revocable by the succeeding church unless that church had declared the trust to be irrevocable. (California-Nevada Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church v. St. Luke's United Methodist Church, 121 Cal. App. 3d 754 ["But we respectfully disagree with the view that acts of a board of directors of a lawfully formed [church] corporation may be viewed by a civil court to be a nullity simply because those acts are deemed unauthorized not by any recognized rule of state law, but rather only by the general church's own rules." 121 Cal. App. 3d at 771]). The California Supreme Court declined review. This case, which was severely criticized in the EC Cases (see pp. 58-59, 71-74), also followed the neutral principles approach to resolving church property issues and rejected the EC Cases' interpretation of Corporation Code 9142, which provides for trusts on church property.

I mention the Fifth District's decision not so much for its logic, which I think severely flawed, but for its geography. The Fifth Appellate District, you see, is headquartered in Fresno, California, where Bp. Schofield hangs his mitre. And as fans of stare decisis may recall, all things being equal, a Court of Appeal is supposed to follow its own decisions, not those of other intermediate courts. True, it has the power to overrule or distinguish California-Nevada when a case involving the Diocese of San Joaquin's rights comes before it, but don't bet on it.

What I'm praying for is that the California Supreme Court grants review in the EC Cases. The record looks good, the reasoning of the Fourth District is impeccable, and there is a pretty good chance that its logic might be accepted by the Supremes and become a clear and uniform rule on a State-wide basis.

Jay Luther
Church of the Redeemer
San Rafael, California
Diocese of California
Knowing very little about how the courts function, beyond a basic civics class a long, long time ago, my response is rather limited.

I believe that the premise the TEC will hold to, I'm fairly sure, is that individuals can leave the church, but a diocese cannot. If we surrender that principle even once, half a dozen dioceses may just bolt.

That's according to our canons, which may or may not carry much weight in court. I think we would be willing to lose a case or two rather than compromise that position.

Regardless of what the courts decide, if Schofield breaks off, his see will be declared vacant, and the faithful remnant will elect a new bishop, new standing committee, and the diocese will begin again.

Your thoughts?


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