Saturday, January 2, 2016


This is the question on everyone's mind these days. When will the South Carolina Supreme Court hand down its decision on the Episcopal Church case? The hearing was on September 23, 2015, over three months ago. We have heard nothing from the court since. Originally, I thought we might hear before December 31, 2015, because that was the time the Chief Justice, Jean Toal, was to retire and she had made it abundantly clear she "owned" this case. However, just because she has retired does not mean she had to give up the case. In all probability, the five justices met within two weeks after the hearing, discussed the matter, and voted on a decision. This case was probably decided in early October; and certainly Toal was the center of the decision making process. Then, one in the majority was assigned to write the decision. The proposed decision has to be circulated among all the justices and the majority can have input into it. The minority justices, if there are any, can also write dissenting opinions either singly or as a group. 

This is a highly complex case involving a basic legal problem, the relationship between church and state under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The matter is made even more complicated in this court because of its 2009 All Saints decision, also written by Toal. That decision had two parts: 1-the property of All Saints parish of Pawleys Island belonged to the parish and not the diocese because the diocese had issued a quit claim deed to the parish in 1905 and the Dennis Canon of 1979 did not legally override this, and 2-the parish of All Saints legally severed its ties to the diocese by properly amending its corporate documents in 2004. However, Toal made a point in the hearing of rejecting the precedence of her own 2009 decision as it might apply to the present case. 

Of course, the biggest complication at hand is what to do about the circuit court decision. After all, the case before the supreme court was an appeal of Goodstein's Feb. 3, 2015 judgment. It seemed to me the entire bench of five justices had already summarily dismissed this decision before the hearing. Not one of them had anything positive to say about it. Goodstein's ruling will have to be addressed and assessed as part of the supreme court's decision. This in itself could be difficult and time-consuming process because of the one-sided nature of the trial of July 2014, and the numerous sweeping, and often unsubstantiated, conclusions in Goodstein's order.

The arguments of the two sides were vastly different. The DSC lawyers argued that the 2009 All Saints decision set a precedence the court must follow and that DSC was always an independent and self-governing entity. The ECSC lawyers argued that the First Amendment forbids the courts from making judgments about the internal nature of a religious institution, Goodstein's Order violated neutral principles, and DSC could not unilaterally discard the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church which it had legally adopted in its incorporation. 

Going back to the question of when we will know, what I think all this boils down to is a long wait. This is a huge, complex, and complicated case on which much is riding. This is the first time a state supreme court will rule on the relationship of the Episcopal Church and a local diocese. The whole world is watching.

The SC supreme court routinely hands down decisions on Wednesdays. At around 10:00 a.m. these are posted on the court's website for everyone to see. 

The average wait-time for a written decision is six months. That would put it in late March of 2016. However, I have seen more than one case recently that had twelve months between hearing and written decision. My best guess is we have the court's decision between late March and the end of June of this year. The court usually takes off July and August.

So, it is best just to relax and wait. The justices will act in their own good time. We will get a decision one day in the foreseeable future.