Tuesday, March 31, 2015


On today, March 31, 2015, the United States Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, in Richmond, overruled Judge C. Weston Houck's decision in the U.S. District Court in Charleston. It sent the case back to District Court for rehearing.

On January 28, 2015, the Fourth Circuit held a hearing on the Episcopal Church in South Carolina's appeal of Judge Houck's decision. Houck had dismissed the case under right of abstention since a parallel case was already being litigated in state court. (See post of Jan. 30, 2015: "January 28, 2015: A Day of Destiny.") The audio version of the hearing is available online. The justices made it clear in the hearing they did not agree with Houck's decision. (See also Chronology: August 23, 2013; Sept. 16, 2013; Jan. 14, 2014; Feb. 5, 2014)

Several points immediately jump to mind about this decision, all favoring the Episcopal Church side:

1-the Fourth acted expeditiously. They got their order out in two months after the hearing. This suggests an air of urgency to set the matter straight.
2-The judgment was unanimous. It was written by the chair of the three judge panel, Judge Diane Motz who has a brilliant and long record and who has been on the bench of the Fourth for more than twenty years. The other two judges completely agreed. To them the matter was clear-cut.

3-They rejected Judge Houck's decision about as strongly as they could. They found his reasoning totally unconvincing. They disagreed with his whole work and found nothing in its favor. 

4-The judges made it clear the Colorado River principle must be used in this case. The Brillhart/Wilton rule is not acceptable. The Colorado R. rule demands that the federal court exercise jurisdiction except for extremely narrow circumstances which must be justified as the exception to the rule.

5-The judges made it abundantly clear the District Court must either prove the "exceptional" circumstances to allow abstention or must hear the case. It cannot simply abstain because a parallel case was pending. 

These are the highlights of today's ruling:

"Because we conclude that Colorado River...which permits a federal court to abstain only in 'exceptional' circumstances, properly governs the abstention decision in this action seeking both declaratory and nondeclaratory relief, we vacate the stay [Houck's] order and remand [send back to District Court] for further proceedings [rehearing]." (p.3)

"We have identified six factors a court must consider in making this decision [to abstain]. The district court did not consider any of these factors..." (p. 7-8)

"Colorado River permits a court to abstain only in the rare circumstance in which the needs of judicial administration are so pressing as to supersede the court's otherwise 'virtually unflagging obligation' to exercise its jurisdiction..." (p.9)

"The Brillhart/Wilton standard therefore provides a poor fit for causes of action over which a federal court generally must exercise jurisdiction..." (p. 9)

"We now join several of our sister circuits in holding that Colorado River, not Brillhart/Wilton, must guide a court's decision to abstain from adjudicating mixed complaints [declaratory and nondeclaratory]..." (p. 9-10)

"Nothing in the record in this case indicates that Bishop vonRosenberg's request for injunctive relief is frivolous or designed to avoid application of the Brillhart/Wilton standard. Accordingly, the Colorado River standard governs the abstention question here." (p.11)

"Because the district court did not apply this abstention standard [Colorado R.], we must vacate its stay order and remand for a determination whether such 'exceptional' circumstances are present in this case." (p. 11-12)

What does today's decision mean for the future?

The U.S. District Court in Charleston will rehear the case. There may be another judge to replace Houck this time. The court will have to follow the Colorado River rule and will have to take vonRosenberg's charges very seriously. In this, the court has to come up with an extremely compelling reason not to adjudicate the case. It seems likely the court will proceed with a rehearing following the Colorado River principle and render a decision. If it does proceed, it will ultimately have to decide whether or not vonRosenberg is the legal bishop of the Episcopal diocese of South Carolina. That is the point of the original lawsuit (see Chronology, March 5 and 7, 2013) in which vonR charged that Mark Lawrence was fraudulently claiming to be the Episcopal bishop. In short, the court will decide whether vonR or Lawrence is the legal and legitimate bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina. Given today's decision, odds are better than ever that vonR will win out in federal court.

Today's action by the federal court in Richmond is the best news in litigation the Episcopal Church side has had since the schism occurred two and a half years ago. It may well be that the momentum will shift to the federal court where the Church side will have the advantage. One has only to survey the Church litigation in the last decade to see that. Nevertheless, the state court track will continue as the case makes it way to the state supreme court. What interplay the two federal and state court tracks will have remains to be seen. All of this is new ground as SC is the only one of the five breakaway cases being litigated in local and federal courts at the same time.

Episcopalians should be encouraged by today's news.

See also the news release:  www.episcopalchurchsc.org/news-release-march-31-2015.html . This has a link to today's court order.