Faults in the South Carolina Decision Laid Bare (II)

 

Faults in the South Carolina Decision Laid Bare (II)

Author: 

Allan Haley

After the Motion to Recuse and Vacate discussed in the previous post, the petition for rehearing heaps on many more reasons why the South Carolina Supreme Court should place no confidence in its divided result in the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina case. To a certain extent, because the reasons in the motion to disqualify Justice Hearn are so strong and irrefutable, the reasons the petition gives for rehearing are ancillary.

For as demonstrated in my previous post, if Justice Hearn should have disqualified herself under the applicable Judicial Canons of South Carolina, then the only remedy for her violation of those canons would be to grant a rehearing of the entire case before new and untainted justices.

Rehearing is required, flat out, because respondents' due process rights to a fair and impartial tribunal were grossly violated. But rehearing would be required in any event because the bias injected into the proceedings by Justice Hearn tainted not only her conclusions, but those of Acting Justice Pleicones and of Chief Justice Beatty, as well.

In a nutshell, the fault exposed by the petition for rehearing is this: there is no 3-2 majority, or any majority, of the Court that is united in favor of any reasoning for any result that is dispositive of the entire case. When a court has failed properly to dispose of the whole case before it, it must grant a rehearing to clarify what it meant by its original decision.

Let me restate that observation, in terms a lay person can understand. To have an effective decision from a court of law in which a panel of multiple justices participates, there has to be a majority of the participating justices who each concur in (agree with) the result that necessarily follows from that concurrence. And in this South Carolina decision, an analysis of the separate opinions shows conclusively that while three justices out of five may concur in one given result, they differ fatally in what process gets them to that result.

With no clear majority agreeing on the approach the Court (through its supposed majority) is laying out, the picture is the same as if three bettors at roulette won money when the ball landed on Red 34, because the first bet on "red", the second bet on "even", and the third bet on "34". There is consensus only in result, but not in how you get there. And basic due process requires courts to explicate their reasoning for reaching a given result.

When the result is shown to have been clearly mistaken (i.e., the ball actually landed on Black 15 next to Red 34, or even on Black 22 on the other side -- which means that at a minimum only one bettor out of three could collect), the so-called "plurality" consensus fails, and there remains only the separate reasonings to get to that result, which do not unite or agree in any way.

This is the problem with the opinions as rendered by the South Carolina Supreme Court in the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina case, and it is the key to a lay person's understanding of the issues presented by the petition for rehearing. So let us proceed to the particulars.

Let us start with the so-called "lead" opinion of Acting Justice Pleicones. As will be shown, his opinion is factually inaccurate, grossly misleading, and blatantly result-oriented (in disregard of binding precedent from prior decisions by the same Court).

The first thing to note is that A. J. Pleicones announces that the "standard of review" for the case is in "equity" (Opinions, p. 4 [Adobe Acrobat numbering], at n.1; I will explain what that means in a moment). While the unconstitutionally biased Justice Hearn agrees with him (Opinions, p. 21 [concurring "fully" in the opinion of A.J. Pleicones]), no other Justice does so, and two dissenting Justices (Toal and Kittredge) argue that the standard of review is "one at law", not equity (Opinions, pp. 55-57, and 39 at n. 31).

For his part, Chief Justice Beatty in his opinion makes absolutely no mention of the standard of review which he thinks applies to the case, although he states that he "disagree[s] with the analysis of the majority" (Opinions at 36; emphasis added), so presumably he rejects the equitable standard of review, as well. This means that there are, at best, only two Justices who agree on the applicable standard of review.

An appellate court always specifies the "standard of review" under which it will decide the case before it. That phrase describes the standpoint from which the higher court will review what is in the record from the court below.

For South Carolina courts, the two standards mentioned ("in equity", and "at law") entail two very different procedures in the reviewing court. Under an equitable standard, the appellate court examines the entire record anew, from scratch ("de novo"), and is free to make its own factual findings and conclusions of law that may vary from those of the trial court.

But under a standard of review "at law", the appellate court is bound by the findings of fact made by the trial court which are supported by at least some modicum of trustworthy evidence in the record (such evidence is frequently called "substantial evidence", though the term implies only that the evidence must be at least sufficient to justify a greater than 50-50 belief in its probable veracity).

From what the separate Justices state in their opinions, it has to be concluded that only two of them (Pleicones and Hearn) were in favor of disregarding the findings of the trial court, and of starting anew from scratch. The other three apparently believed that the trial court's findings of fact were binding upon them, subject only to a substantial evidence requirement in support.

This analysis shows that Pleicones and Hearn stood alone in their free-ranging substitutions of their own factual findings in place of those made by the trial court. But two votes out of five do not make for a majority in that respect. Therefore it is folly to regard the "lead" opinion of A.J. Pleicones as stating anything other than the individual views of the case by himself and Justice Hearn.

In other words, there were three votes out of five (a majority) to regard the trial court's findings of fact as binding upon the Supreme Court, rather than subject to de novo review. This analysis alone should give pause to those who triumphed in announcing that they had prevailed by a 3-2 vote.

In his separate opinion concurring partly in those of Justices Hearn and Pleicones, Chief Justice Beatty voted in favor of reversing the trial court's legal conclusion (following the rule handed down in the Waccamaw case -- see the previous post) that the Dennis Canon could not create an effective trust in South Carolina. Instead, C.J. Beatty concluded that the Canon, in combination with the individual parishes' supposed "accessions" through their corporate articles and bylaws, operated to create a binding and irrevocable trust on their properties in favor of the national Church and its diocese, as a matter of law.

This conclusion, as just noted, was one of law, not of fact. So the adjudicatory effect of Chief Justice Beatty's opinion depends upon his application of the law to the trial court's factual findings (which were binding upon the three members of the appellate court who rejected the "equity" standard of review). The problem that underlies Chief Justice Beatty's legal conclusion is that it rests upon certain assumptions of fact that were contrary to those found by the trial court (e.g., that the various "accessions" signed by the individual parishes were informed enough to operate as a consent to the creation of a trust that was legally recognizable ["cognizable"] under South Carolina law).

A good part of the petition for rehearing (pp. 18-22, and 24-31) is devoted to a detailed showing that there was never any express consent by the various parishes, under the specific wording of their so-called "accessions" to the national Church's canons (including its Dennis Canon after 1979), that would be sufficient under South Carolina trust law to create any kind of trust in favor of ECUSA and its local diocese in those parish properties.

Justice Beatty does not address these discrepancies -- he was unaware of them, since the documents were not made part of the record on appeal (because ECUSA never raised any appellate issue involving them). Justice Beatty apparently relied for his conclusion on the unsupported assertions of ECUSA's attorneys, made in a post-trial motion for reconsideration, that all the subject parishes had "acceded" to the Dennis Canon. He simply delivers an omnibus ruling that the standards for trust creation were met in the case of parishes who "acceded" to the national canons (i.e., according to the representations of ECUSA's attorneys -- which were not evidence in the case).

The petition for rehearing shows, as just noted, that Justice Beatty's assumed factual basis for his decision is fatally flawed, along with the consequences he draws from his unjustified assumption. So what is left of his concurring opinion? If he truly wants to address the discrepancies identified by the petition for rehearing, he will concede that it is correct. Only an irrefragable personal pride in one's output would keep a conscientious justice from admitting that he made a mistake, and from voting to reconsider the Court's decision.

A particularly poignant observation is necessary here, in light of the fact that Chief Justice Beatty was the only Justice to address the specific fate of Camp Christopher, a long-held diocesan property that serves as a conference center and clergy retreat for Mark Lawrence's diocese. He stated in a footnote to his concurring opinion:

The conveyance of Camp St. Christopher was for the explicit purpose of furthering "the welfare of the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina." In my view, the disassociated diocese can make no claim to being the successor to the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina. 

The petition for rehearing (pp. 34-35) refutes this unwarranted (and unsupported) conclusion on the basis that the trial court never found, and the appellants never argued on appeal, that they were the "successor" to the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina. Justice Beatty seems to have reached this conclusion entirely on his own initiative, with zero evidence in the record and zero contentions on appeal to support it. (Associate Justice Pleicones fell into the same trap under his pseudo-"hierarchical" finding -- see his opinion at p. 18. Since, however, the Dennis Canon has no application to property held by a diocese, his conclusion about its validity as to parishes has no bearing on the title to Camp Christopher.)

Such diaphanous cloth appears to be the material from which the Supreme Court of South Carolina weaves its fantastic decisions (at least when it is not wisely advised). Chief Justice Beatty's gratuitous footnote was not joined in by any other Justice -- no one else so much as mentioned Camp Christopher in their opinions. Accordingly, it would be a stretch to claim that his footnote serves as the basis for a 3-2 decision to transfer title to Camp Christopher to ECUSA.

All these minor points, however, are but appetizers for the main course. For the opinions of a minority of two of the South Carolina Justices (Hearn and Pleicones) are being touted by those ignorant of precedent as the basis for a wholesale overturning of South Carolina law on the topic of religious property disputes.

I hesitate to go here, because there is so much ill-informed opinion out on the Web about what "neutral principles" means in the context of disputes between religious factions over the ownership of and title to religious property. The best I can do is what I have already done: please visit this earlier post and its links before wading into these murky waters.

If you have absorbed what is in those earlier posts, congratulations! You will then be able to see just where A.J. Pleicones (and Justice Hearn, too, of course) went astray in giving lip service to "neutral principles" while in fact taking us back to the 19th-century doctrine of "deference to ecclesiastical authority." They want nothing to do with "neutral principles", because they like creating "special principles" applicable only to a category of church denominations they find to be "hierarchical."

In so doing, they stand the First Amendment on its head, by "establishing" ECUSA as a special church in our legal system that, in order to placate Justice Blackmun's "minimal burden" standard under Jones v. Wolf, is able to create a binding and irrevocable trust across all State borders and regardless of the fifty States' individual trust laws by the adoption of a single bylaw. Such "deference" to a national church has precisely the effect of doing what the Establishment Clause forbids. It gives to ECUSA a status that favors it over all secular organizations, and many other religious ones, as well.

Moreover, there are a number of other problems with A. J. Pleicones' and Hearn's approaches that they simply overlook, and fail to deal with:

  • First, ECUSA did not follow Justice Blackmun's advice and embody a trust in its governing constitution (which would require at least four years to amend). It fudged, by passing just a canon (bylaw), which can take effect immediately, and which Jones did not sanction.
  • Second, they ignore all the undisputed evidence that ECUSA's General Convention is just a legislative, and not an adjudicatory body. It passes laws (resolutions), and decides no disputes of any kind (other than who is entitled to a seat and vote). Indeed, there is zero evidence for the claim that ECUSA has any kind of "highest adjudicatory body" at all. So there is no body, or adjudication, to which a court must defer.
  • Third, the Dennis Canon trust cannot be "irrevocable", because General Convention may amend or revoke it unilaterally at any time it chooses. A trust that can so be amended or revoked is not "irrevocable." Moreover, making it irrevocable by any actions of a parish or a diocese creates its own problems with the First Amendment, since if deciding what to do with church real property is part of the "free exercise of religion" and so beyond civil adjudication, then placing limits on what parishes and dioceses may do with their own properties is an infringement on their free exercise rights.

All these arguments, and many more, are in the petition for rehearing. It does not merely "restate [Plaintiffs'] earlier arguments to the Court", as I saw one blogger describe it. The reason it does not is that the "majority Justices" themselves departed so freely in their several opinions from exactly what the parties had submitted to them in the record of the case and in the briefs on appeal.

The best conclusion to this discussion is the one in the petition itself (pp. 36-37):

The majority has fashioned a neutral principles standard for religious organizations under South Carolina property, trust and corporate law that admittedly would not be applied to secular organizations. It then applied it to religious organizations today in a fashion it did not do 8 years ago involving the same issues between the Plaintiff Diocese, The Episcopal Church and a parish church. It does so when no appellant asked the trial court, either during trial or post trial, to apply such a standard. As a result, the majority would transfer the real and personal property of South Carolina religious organizations, many of which preexisted The Episcopal Church and the United States, to a New York religious organization. This establishment of one religion over another impacts the choices these South Carolina religious organizations (and those associated with them) made in the free exercise of their religion. They chose to disassociate, exercising their right of association under the United States and South Carolina Constitutions which this Court has recognized. Yet, according to the majority, that constitutionally protected decision requires a massive transfer of centuries old real and personal property when it would not be required for a secular South Carolina organization. 

Indeed. The "decision" is not a real decision at all. It is fractured beyond understanding; it is ambiguous, confusing and contradictory; and biased beyond all measures of impartiality and fairness. It needs to be wiped from the books, and a fresh start made with an impartial tribunal.

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