AN UPDATE ON THE SC SUPREME COURT
The South Carolina Supreme Court has before it the Episcopal Church case, to be specific the appeal of the Episcopal Church and diocese of Judge Edgar Dickson's 2020 order reversing the SCSC decision of Aug. 2, 2017. This is an opportune moment to review the matter now before the SCSC.
First a brief chronology:
---July 13, 2020. Notice of Appeal. The SCSC agreed to accept the appeal of Dickson's order of June 19, 2020.
---Nov. 12, 2020. Appellants' Initial Brief. Appellants are the Episcopal Church and the church diocese.
---Feb. 12, 2021. Respondents' Initial Brief. Respondents are the Anglican Diocese of South Carolina using old title of The Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina and the individual parishes aligned.
---Mar. 4, 2021. Appellants' Reply to Respondents' Initial Brief.
---Apr. 22, 2021. Respondents' Final Brief.
---Apr. 26, 2021. Appellants' Final Brief.
---Apr. 26, 2021. Appellants' Record of the Case. 19 volumes, 9,016 pages.
---May 3, 2021. Briefing and Record Complete.
All of these documents may be found on the SC courts website here .
Now we know that all of the papers have been submitted to the state supreme court. The full case is before the justices in Columbia.
The court must make two decisions soon. One is whether to engage an acting justice. Of the five sitting justices, one has recused herself, leaving four. In the past, the court has often used a temporary justice to fill out the full bench. They could do the same now.
The other decision is whether to hold a public hearing or go straight to a written decision. Since two of the four justices are new to the case, it would make sense to hold a hearing so that these justices could question the attorneys on both sides as to the details of the case. The longer the justices go without announcing a hearing, the greater the likelihood they will go straight to a written opinion.
On one hand, this case is exceedingly complex and complicated. The full case record mentioned above is mountainous---over 9,000 pages. Imagine the justices, or their poor clerks, having to wade through and make sense of all that.
On the other hand, the matter before the justices is simple. In all of the back-and-forth of the five briefs listed above, there is really one major point. It is the Dennis Canon.
The SCSC decision of Aug. 2, 2017 ruled in a majority opinion that 28 (actually 29) of the 36 parishes in question had in fact acceded to the Dennis Canon; and therefore the congregations forfeited the property to the trustee, the Episcopal Church, when they declared separation from the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church is now the owner of the 28 (29) parish properties. The same for the Camp which is now property of the Episcopal diocesan trustees.
Judge Dickson declared in his June 19, 2020 order that the parishes had not acceded to the Dennis Canon and they, and the Camp, remain in local hands. In other words, the Episcopal Church did not own the properties.
So, the decision before the justices is really rather simple. It is whether to defend the SCSC decision or to affirm Dickson's order. They must choose one or the other since the two are diametrically opposed. If they choose the SCSC decision, the Episcopal side gets the properties. If they affirm Dickson, the Anglican side gets the properties.
Although I am not a lawyer or legal expert, I just cannot imagine how the justices could justify overturning a SCSC decision that had become the law of the land in favor of a circuit court judge who decided on his own to reverse the state supreme court and to ignore the Remittitur that the SCSC has delivered to him at the start. A Remittitur is an official order to a lower court to implement a higher court decision.
Upholding the SCSC decision would be upholding the law. Affirming Dickson would be throwing into chaos the entire legal system of the state. If a circuit judge is allowed to overrule a state supreme court decision, there would never be order or finality in court decisions. Court rulings would become only suggestions. The supreme court would no longer be supreme. Why have courts at all if that becomes the case?
The matter before the SCSC now is really rather simple, but is far, very far, from being insignificant.