Friday, July 21, 2017
JUDGE HOUCK DIES
Judge Charles Weston Houck died on July 19, 2017. He was the federal judge handling the Church case in Charleston. He was 84 years old.
Judge Houck voluntarily took the case. As a semi-retired senior judge he could have passed on it. Apparently he found the whole matter far more complicated and difficult than he had imagined. He once said with sad resignation that he was having trouble making heads or tails of it.
Houck handled two different aspects of adjudication and essentially passed on each. In one instance, the Episcopal Church side moved the state court proceeding to Houck's federal court in April of 2013. In June, Houck refused and remanded the case to the state circuit court.
The second instance was the larger one. In March of 2013, Bishop Charles vonRosenberg brought suit against Bishop Mark Lawrence claiming that ML was in violation of the federal Lanham Act that protects against trademark infringement. VonR said ML was falsely claiming to be the Episcopal bishop even though he had left TEC.
There are two principles that federal judges may follow in deferring to state courts. Brillhart/Wilton allows a wider discretion. Colorado River has a much narrower window. Under it, a federal judge may defer to state court on a matter of federal law only under rare and exceptional circumstances.
In August of 2013, Judge Houck cited Brillhart/Wilton as his guide in refusing to adjudicate and deferring to the ongoing proceedings in the state court. At the same time, Houck declared that ML had renounced the ordained ministry and the Episcopal Church was hierarchical.
The Church lawyers appealed Houck's decision to defer. The U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that Houck had used the wrong standard and should have followed Colorado River. They remanded to Houck.
Houck ruled a second time as the first. He deferred to the state court. A second time the Church lawyers appealed to the federal court of appeals that, once again, directed Houck to follow the narrow Colorado River principle. This was six months ago. Houck did not respond to the second direvtive.
Presumably another judge in the U. S. District Court in Charleston has been or soon will be assigned to the case. I would imagine this will drag out matters even more.
Obviously the courts are finding the Church dispute far more difficult to resolve than they had thought. Judge Houck essentially threw up his hands in exasperation and kicked it all down to the state courts. The circuit court decision was so over-the-top in favor of the secessiomists that the state supreme court could hardly restrain their ridicule. Now apparently that court has slogged to a halt. After 21 months of waiting we have nothing at all from the five high justices of Columbia. Unfortunately for them, they cannot punt the ball as Houck did. They are obliged to give us a decision.