Thursday, October 17, 2019


Judge Edgar Dickson, of the first circuit court in South Carolina, has had the Episcopal church case before him since January 10, 2018. That's a total of 21 months if you are counting. What's happened in those 21 months in Judge Dickson's court? Very little of consequence. Thus, we turn to this fair question: What's the matter with Judge Dickson?

What is Judge Dickson supposed to be doing? He is supposed to be implementing the South Carolina Supreme Court decision of August 2, 2017. That decision listed three majority conclusions on its last page:  1-8 local parish entities independent of the Episcopal Church, 2-28 local parishes property of the Episcopal Church, and 3-Camp St. Christopher property of the Episcopal Church diocese. (A clarification on numbers: 8 entities wound up as 7 parishes; 28 parishes really meant 29 because one of the official plaintiff parishes was accidentally omitted from the list on the front page.)

For more info on Judge Dickson, see the SCCourts website. Find it here .

Let us begin with a brief chronology of the case before Judge Dickson:


Nov. 17 --- SCSC denied a rehearing and issued a Remittitur of its 2 August 2017 decision to the SC First Circuit Court (the court of origin).

Nov. 19 --- Diocese of South Carolina (the breakaway diocese) entered its Betterments suit claiming reimbursement for improvements on properties owned by TEC.

Dec. 15 --- TEC/TECSC (the Episcopal Church side) filed a motion to dismiss the Betterments suit.

Dec. 27 --- DSC filed a motion to establish a complex case (to be handled by one judge).


Jan. 10 --- Judge Dickson assigned to handle the church case.

Mar. 23 --- DSC filed motion for clarification of jurisdiction asking the court to decide issues in the SCSC decision.

May 8 --- TEC/TECSC filed motion for implementation of the SCSC decision and the appointment of a special master.

May 14 --- Judge Dickson announced a hearing on May 30. He cancelled this on May 22.

July 11 --- TEC/TECSC filed petition for an accounting.

July 26 --- Judge Dickson held status conference with the lawyers and asked for lists of the issues they wished him to consider.

Aug. 2 --- Both sets of lawyers presented their lists to Judge Dickson.

Sept. 24 --- Each side filed 3 memoranda in support of their positions.

Oct. 5 --- TEC/TECSC filed 3 responses to DSC while DSC filed 2 responses to TEC/TECSC.

Oct. 12 --- TEC/TECSC filed an omnibus reply to DSC while DSC filed one reply to TEC/TECSC.

Nov. 19 --- Judge Dickson held a hearing on DSC's motion (Mar. 23) for clarification. He said he would rule on this first. He set aside the other 5 motions/petitions. He told the lawyers he would gather more information via email.


Jan. 8 --- Judge Dickson sent an email to lawyers asking them to show how the SCSC decision supported their positions.

Jan. 14 --- Judge Dickson sent an email to lawyers asking for documents on how the local churches had voted on the Dennis Canon.

Mar. 19 --- Judge Dickson set a hearing on the Betterments suit for Mar. 27.

Mar. 20 --- TEC filed petition for writ of mandamus with the SCSC asking the justices to order Judge Dickson to implement the SCSC Aug. 2 decision.

Mar. 26 --- Judge Dickson cancelled the hearing he had set for Mar. 27.

June 28 --- SCSC denied TEC's petition for a writ.

July 2 --- Judge Dickson set a hearing on the Betterments suit for July 23.

July 23 --- Judge Dickson held a hearing and issued two decisions: 1-to implement the first ruling of the SCSC decision to recognize 7 parishes as independent owners of their property, and 2-to order mediation. He made no decision on Betterments.

Aug. 28 --- Judge Dickson announced he would deny TEC/TECSC's motion to dismiss the Betterments suit (he did so on 9 Sept.).

Sept. 11 --- TEC/TECSC filed a response to the Betterments suit.

Sept. 19 --- Federal court judge Richard Gergel issued a decision emphasizing the validity and importance of the SCSC decision of Aug. 2. 

Sept. 19 --- TEC/TECSC filed a motion to Judge Dickson for reconsideration of his denial of the motion to dismiss (Sept. 9).

Sept. 26 --- Mediation meeting resulted in declaration of impasse.

Oct. 4 --- Church lawyer Tisdale sent letter to Judge Dickson requesting a hearing on the implementation of the SCSC Aug. 2 decision.


Dickson was assigned the Remittitur of the Aug. 2, 2017 SCSC decision on January 10, 2018. He has had the case before him since then.

His original task was to implement the SCSC decision. Once the SCSC refused rehearing and the U.S. Supreme Court denied cert, the SCSC decision became the final law of the land.

Six motions/petitions were presented to Judge Dickson. DSC: 1-Betterments, 2-Complex case, 3-Clarification of jurisdiction; TEC/TECSC: 1-dismiss Betterments, 2-implement the SCSC decision and appoint a special master, 3-accounting of the breakaway side.

Judge Dickson has ruled on 1 of the 6. He denied TEC's motion to dismiss the Betterments suit. This leaves 5 motions/petitions now before him, 3 from DSC and 2 from TEC.

Judge Dickson has made two rulings in this case: 1-to deny TEC's motion to dismiss Betterments, and 2-to implement the first majority order in the SCSC decision (independence of the 7 parishes).

Judge Dickson has held two hearings, one on the DSC motion for clarification of jurisdiction and one on the Betterments suit. He has made no ruling on either issue (except to dismiss TEC's motion for discarding Betterments).

I have counted 22 separate court filings on Judge Dickson's desk. These run to hundreds of pages. This is not counting the material presented in the two hearings. It is impossible to imagine Judge Dickson needs any more information about this case.

The two rulings that Judge Dickson has made are in the interest of the DSC side. He has made no order supporting the TEC side.


The Episcopal Church side simply wants Judge Dickson to implement the SCSC decision of Aug. 2, 2017. He has enforced the first of the three majority conclusions (for the 7 independent parishes). The Church wants him to implement # 2 (28 [29] parishes property of the Episcopal Church) and # 3 (Camp St. Christopher property of the Church diocese).

The breakaway side wants Judge Dickson to declare the SCSC decision unenforceable and to rule himself on the issue of property ownership of the 28 parishes. This would give the independent diocese a new shot at keeping these parishes away from repossession by the Episcopal Church.

I suspect the fondest hope of the breakaways is to get this case back to the SCSC. Of course this would have to be in the guise of a new case since the old one has been closed. The SCSC now is different than it was in 2017. Two justices have retired (Toal, Pleicones) and two new ones have been added. (Thanks to scepiscopalians we know that one of the new ones, John C. Few, was just married in St. Philip's Church, in Charleston. This raises questions of his impartiality.) Conservatives have a majority on the present SCSC. 

Then, what is all this business on Betterments? This is a curiosity since DSC is claiming that TEC does not own the 28 properties. The Betterments suit is based on the assumption that TEC owns the properties. Betterments says if TEC does own the properties, the parishes are due reimbursements for the improvements they made on the properties. The catch is they want the whole value of the property, all the way back to the start. TEC contends that the parishes have no standing to make this suit because they cannot sue the beneficiaries of their own trusts (sort of like suing oneself).

DSC's Plan A is to keep the 28 away from TEC. Their Plan B is to soak TEC of money to pay for regaining the 28 properties.

In order for the Betterments suit to proceed, the court will have to recognize the Episcopal Church as the owner of the properties. 

DSC is presenting Judge Dickson with a dilemma. They want him to declare the parishes own their properties outright (against the SCSC decision), but if he does not do that, they want him to force TEC to pay, and pay enormously, for the properties. It is no wonder Judge Dickson wished this whole thing would go away when he sent them to mediation. Of all people, he must be the most disappointed that mediation failed. In fact, it was DOA. It is too bad he could not see what I, and many others, knew would happen.


So, what happens now?

First we have to bear in mind that all judges and justices in SC are elected by the state legislature, after a committee clearance process. This makes all of them in a way political appointees. As we have seen in the history of the litigation of this schism, judges and justices can differ vastly on the same issue, same case. The local pressures on the local judges in SC must be heavy and their decisions may bear on their futures one way or the other. And, since we are talking about South Carolina, we are talking about a relatively conservative and traditional social and culture milieu. Judges who dare to challenge the establishment status quo may be subject to harsh treatment indeed (think Judge J. Waites Waring). Remember too the despicable character assassination campaign against Justice Kaye Hearn after the SCSC issued the August 2, 2017 decision that was shattering, even shocking, to the local conservative order. Even the chief justice, Donald Beatty has come under a lot of criticism. So, one can only imagine what pressures from local powerful, conservative forces Judge Dickson must be facing.

It may be revealing to note that Judge Dickson's two decisions so far were both in support of the anti-TEC side. However, this does not necessarily mean he will continue this favoritism.

Second, we have to keep in mind that this church fight in SC is fundamentally about social issues. The Episcopal Church, and its local diocese, have granted equality and inclusion to blacks, women, homosexuals, and transgendered in the church. The secessionists refused equality and inclusion for women, homosexuals, and transgendered. They felt so strongly about this they were willing to tear up the grand old diocese and plunge everyone into years of destructive and expensive legal war. The battle lines are clear. This is a culture war, for and against sweeping social change. Of all the states of the union, historically speaking, SC has been the most resistant to social and cultural reform. It remains overall a relatively conservative state socially and culturally. The prevailing popular attitudes in SC favor the breakaway side. Every judge would know this. 

What are Judge Dickson's options now?

I see three choices:

1-Do nothing. Judge Dickson is 69 years old and has had a distinguished career in the law. He can ignore this case and retire soon leaving the whole matter to his successor. If I were Judge Dickson, I would be tempted to take this road. This church case is highly complex, complicated, contentious and deeply entwined with life in SC. Ruling on all this mess would take a great deal of courage and wisdom, such as Judge Richard Gergel just showed. Gergel, however, as a federal judge, was not subject to the same local pressures and entanglements as a state judge.

2-Order the implementation of # 2 and # 3 majority decisions on the last page of the SCSC decision of Aug. 2, 2017. This would mean the complete judicial victory of the Episcopal Church side having already won the entity of the diocese in the federal court. One could expect the breakaway side to react furiously appealing to the SC Court of Appeals. The appeals court, however, certainly will defend the integrity of the SCSC decision. Nevertheless, Judge Dickson may find himself enduring personal attacks from local conservative forces as Hearn and Beatty did. One big factor to help Judge Dickson is the Sept. 19 order of Judge Gergel that strongly promoted the validity of the SCSC decision.

3-Declare the SCSC decision unenforceable and rule anew on property ownership for the 28 parishes in question. This would satisfy the secessionist side but infuriate the TEC side. There are two immediate problems with this approach. In the first, Judge Dickson would have to discard a final decision of the SCSC. It is impossible to imagine this would hold up under appeal. In the second, Judge Dickson would have to wade through vast quantities of documents from 29 parishes to determine himself if each had acceded to the Dennis Canon. This itself would be in defiance of the SCSC Aug. 2 decision. In that decision, the justices of the SCSC considered the evidence, in the voluminous court record from the circuit court, on accession to the Dennis Canon. After considering the evidence, four of the five justices agreed the 28 (29) had indeed acceded to the Dennis Canon. It is difficult to imagine that a circuit court judge would discard the opinion of the state supreme court and impose an order in opposition to it. The state appeals court would never uphold such.

What about the Betterments suit? If Judge Dickson agrees that TEC owns the 28 properties, he could allow the Betterments suit to continue. This would open up a host of problems which would be very difficult and time-consuming to solve. He would have to rule that the parish had standing to bring suit, in opposition to the TEC position. Then he would have to decide when they started occupying the property they did not own. And then he would have to figure up all of the "improvements" that had been made. I expect he would be retired before all of that enormous amount of work would be finished.

At any rate, it makes no sense for a judge to recognize the Dennis Canon and turn around and discard the Dennis Canon. Under the Canon, a parish owns its property but does in trust for two beneficiaries, the Episcopal Church and its local diocese. It owns the property as long as the parishioners remain in the Episcopal Church. If they leave the church, the property moves to ownership of the Episcopal Church. Thus, parishioners never own the property outside of the confines of the Episcopal Church. Moreover, since the Dennis Canon was well-known, the parishioners could not have believed they owned the property outright. 

Bottom line----#2 is the best choice.

Judge Dickson is in a difficult situation. We can all appreciate that. However, this matter is his responsibility. Often we do not get to choose what lands on our plates. Those in positions of public responsibility have to deal with all of it, the good, the bad, and the ugly. I should know. My father was the chief of police in Pensacola FL in the civil rights era. He never, ever even considered shirking his duty even under the threat of  harm to himself and his family. Goodness knows, over my years of college teaching I had numerous students, colleagues, and administrators I had rather have lived without. I dealt with them anyway; and I did the best I could even when it was not easy. I am sure in your life you have encountered the same situations.

Judge Dickson has a job to do. He has to face his original assignment, to implement the SCSC decision of Aug. 2, 2017. He has already enforced the first of the three majority orders of the decision. There is no good reason why he should not now move on to enforce the other two. 

The U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington D.C. has two large seated figures majestically presiding over its front steps, "Law" and "Justice" (find them here ) . Judge Dickson can serve both of these by doing his duty to implement the SCSC decision. In the end, I believe he knows it is the right thing to do; and as a good Presbyterian, he knows it is his duty and God-given destiny to do it.