San Joaquin Trial Concludes; Court Sets Briefing Schedule

The trial in the case of Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin vs. Schofield finished in Fresno Superior Court on Monday.

The trial in the case of Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin vs. Schofield finished in Fresno Superior Court on Monday, with the videotaped testimony of Bishop John-David Schofield played in a courtroom packed with both his admirers and his opponents. (Bishop Schofield passed away at his home last October, but his testimony had been preserved in 2011 in anticipation of the trial.)

At the conclusion of his testimony, both sides rested — the plaintiffs declined to put on any rebuttal evidence — and the court then put questions to counsel in lieu of closing arguments. Judge Donald Black began by asking the plaintiffs point-blank: “Can you show me just where in the Episcopal Church’s Constitution and Canons it says that a member diocese may not amend its constitution so as to remove its accession clause?”

(The former Diocese of San Joaquin, under the leadership of then-Bishop Schofield, and voted on December 8, 2007 to amend its constitution and canons to replace language acceding to ECUSA’s constitution with language that affiliated the Diocese with the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone. Since then, the Diocese has called itself “the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin.” However, when the newly formed rump Episcopal diocese brought this lawsuit in April 2008, it did not join the Anglican Diocese as a defendant, but only its bishop and its subsidiary property-holding entities.)

The plaintiffs’ counsel, of course, could point to no such language, because it does not exist. And with that one question, Judge Black put his finger on the crux of the case.

The Anglican parties contend that their 2007 amendments to disaffiliate from ECUSA were fully proper and valid under California secular law, as well as not contrary to any language in ECUSA’s governing documents.

The ECUSA parties contend that even though there is no concrete language prohibiting such amendments, it is “understood”, as a matter of ECUSA’s “hierarchical” structure, that once a diocese “accedes” to ECUSA’s Constitution, it may never thereafter “de-accede” (i.e., secede). To date, ECUSA has paid its expert witness, Dr. Robert Bruce Mullin of its General Theological Seminary in New York, the princely sum of nearly one million dollars to testify to that effect as a matter of “historical fact,” and he so testified in Fresno.

The Episcopal parties have also fastened on certain language in the earlier appellate court decision in this same case, when the Fifth District Court of Appeals unanimously reversed and vacated the trial court’s order granting summary judgment to ECUSA on its hierarchical claims as a matter of law. Among other “ecclesiastical facts” which the Court said could not be re-examined in any civil court was “the continuity of the diocese as an entity within the Episcopal Church.” Although the Court was responding to a defense argument that the plaintiff diocese had no standing to sue in court because it had never been admitted into union with General Convention, and was thus not a real Episcopal diocese, plaintiffs ever since have trumpeted that language as affirming their position that dioceses cannot leave the Church, as a matter of law.

At the outset of the trial. Judge Black almost agreed with the plaintiffs’ version of the Schofield decision, but if he had, there would have been no need for a trial. The basic facts were not in dispute, and if the Fifth District Court had really meant to decide that as a matter of law, dioceses cannot leave the Episcopal Church, then the actions of the diocesan convention in 2007 were ultra vires and void, and all property stayed with the remnant diocese. Since the appellate court, however, sent the ownership of property issues back to be tried upon “neutral principles of law”, defendants argued that it could not at the same time have ruled that the case was, in effect, over. This realization caused Judge Black to let the case proceed to a full trial, but he still wants the parties to address the proper meaning of the Schofield decision in their final briefs.

The parties are to file simultaneous briefs on February 24, and simultaneous reply briefs on March 17. The court will then take the matter under submission and issue its decision within three months thereafter.

First printed in Anglican Curmudgeon.

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