“more on this rather surprising result as soon as I finish my analysis.”
Here is the court’s own summary:
In a divided decision, the trial court’s order is reversed as to twenty-nine parishes and affirmed as to the remaining parishes. The trial court’s intellectual property ruling is affirmed by a vote of 2-2, with one justice declining to reach the issue.
Here are the seven parishes which, by a 3-2 vote, were not subject to the Dennis Canon: Christ the King, Waccamaw; St. Matthews Church, Darlington; St. Andrews Church-Mt. Pleasant Land Trust; St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Conway; The Episcopal Church of the Parish of Prince George Winyah, Georgetown; the Parish of St. Andrew, Mt. Pleasant; St. John’s Episcopal Church of Florence; and St. Matthias Episcopal Church, Summerton.
The decisions show a bitterly divided Court that could not agree even upon the basic framework by which to decide the case. I put a lot of the blame for this divisiveness upon Justice Hearn, about whose blatant bias I wrote at the time of the oral argument. Her opinion concurring with Justice Pleicones might as well have been written by David Booth Beers.
In a nutshell, here is the determinative dispute among the members of the Court. First, let Acting Justice Pleicones explain how he (and Justice Hearn, and Chief Justice Beatty) view the case (footnote omitted; emphasis added):
Since the main purposes of this suit were requests for declaratory judgments and injunctive relief, I find that it sounds in equity. Doe v. S.C. Med. Mal. Liab. Joint Underwriting Ass’n, 347 S.C. 642, 557 S.E.2d 670 (2001). The Court is therefore free to take its own view of the facts.
Now listen to dissenting (and former Chief) Justice Toal as she counters that argument (I omit her footnotes):
First, I strongly disagree with the lead opinion’s statement of the standard of review. The lead opinion contends that because the plaintiffs are seeking injunctive relief, this is an equitable matter. As a result, the lead opinion finds the Court is free to take its own view of the facts.
However, by the terms of their complaint, the plaintiffs seek a declaratory judgment as to the rightful ownership, under South Carolina law, of the real, personal, and intellectual property of the disassociated diocese, the plaintiff parishes, and the trustee corporation. The plaintiffs’ request for injunctive relief is clearly confined to the defendants’ use of the plaintiffs’ names, seals, and emblems—which, as I explain further, infra, is ultimately a question of federal law.
“A suit for declaratory judgment is neither legal nor equitable; rather, it is determined by the nature of the underlying issue.” Sloan v. Greenville Hosp. Sys., 388 S.C. 152, 157, 694 S.E.2d 532, 534 (2010). Rather than looking to the relief sought, appellate courts must look to the “main purpose” of the underlying issue to determine whether the action is at law or in equity.Verenes v. Alvanos, 387 S.C. 11, 16, 690 S.E.2d 771, 773 (2010); Sloan v. Greenville Cnty., 356 S.C. 531, 544, 590 S.E.2d 338, 345 (Ct. App. 2003).
Here, the central issue of this dispute (as succinctly put by the lead opinion) is the determination of title to real property. Therefore, the action is one at law.
If the action is at law, then the trial court’s findings of fact must be upheld unless they lack substantial evidence to support them. But if the case is one in equity, then as Acting Justice Pleicones says, the Court is free to start afresh as though trial had never happened, and take its own view of the facts.
Note that Justice Hearn supplied the third vote for the latter view, which thus became the majority view. But she was so biased from the outset that she was incapable of any kind of neutral analysis of this determinative issue. She simply adopts the view that will allow her to make the majority in the case. Had she recused herself (as she should have), the decision below may well have been affirmed as to the 29 unlucky parishes.
That’s all I can write for now — I will have much more on this rather surprising result as soon as I finish my analysis.