Thursday, May 5, 2011

California Supreme Court Gives St. James its Day in Court

The monumental struggle of St. James Newport Beach to have its day in court just received a definitive boost from the California Supreme Court. In a near-unanimous decision, the Court reversed the opinion by two justices of the Fourth District Court of Appeal, who had decided that the case against St. James was over, and that the Diocese of Los Angeles had won, based solely on the Supreme Court's previous decision in the case. One Justice -- Justice Kennard, who earlier had signaled she favored the antiquated "deferential" approach of Watson v. Jones (see links below), dissented, and said she would affirm the ruling below.

For background on the unusual history of this case, please consult the four most recent posts listed at this page, of which this one gives perhaps the best overview. (The press release issued by St. James on the latest decision may be found at this link.) Suffice it to say that justice has finally prevailed against the plaintiffs' maneuverings, and St. James will receive its day in court. (Of course, watch ECUSA and the Diocese now spend thousands and thousands of dollars to file motions for summary judgment in an attempt to head off that eventuality. Nevertheless, given that their entire case turns on a huge question of fact -- was Canon (now Bishop) McPherson authorized, on behalf of the then Bishop of Los Angeles, to issue a waiver of the Dennis Canon as to the new property being added on to St. James? -- the trial court should most likely deny any such motions, and hold that the case will have to go to trial.)

The decision by a two-justice majority on the Court of Appeals, which the Supreme Court has now reversed, will go down in the annals as a monument to result-oriented judicial reasoning. Even though the two justices did not entirely agree on how to get there, they both knew where they wanted to come out, and they did not care how much bending of due process it took to get there. Indeed, in any future appeal of the case, they ought to be disqualified from hearing it, since their bias against letting St. James have its day in court was so manifest from their opinions. To conclude on the basis of some verbiage that the California Supreme Court has the power to end a case completely and finally, before even an answer to the complaint is filed, is a proposition so preposterous that it deserves to be forever preserved in the scroll of infamy.

Justice Kennard evidences by her dissent that she is irrelevant to these proceedings. She maintains that the "neutral principles" approach of Jones v. Wolf should not be followed in California, and that the courts should simply allow the Episcopal Church (USA) to make up its own rules about church property, without any checks on or supervision over its authority. As such, she is a lone voice on the bench, and her cry to ignore the First Amendment's Establishment Clause has (fortunately) found no followers among her colleagues.

It will now be a number of years, hopefully, before this case reaches the California higher courts again. In that time, perhaps we will see some changes in the appellate bench. Of course, any such changes might not work to improve the situation; but it is difficult to imagine how they could make it any worse.


  1. I am very grateful for this decision.
    I do hope St. James will prevail. Maybe now is the time for LA Diocese to mediate with St. James.

  2. I was pleased to hear this. To be frank, I always thought the law was with St. James, but I was afraid, after the recent determination to push through the anti-marriage agenda, the courts were too politicized to follow the law.

  3. I keep wondering how a court can rule on a church organization without ruling on ecclesiology, a field of theology, if they are not supposed to rule on theology. There are many different kinds of heirarchy - congregational, presbyterian, episcopal, and mixes - which were chosen and modified by theological views. When this is part of the issue of the lawsuits, such decisions seem illegal.