Judicial Council Decisions

Decision No. 1201

In Re: A Request from the Northern Illinois Annual Conference for a Declaratory Decision Regarding a Resolution That Suggests a Maximum Penalty for Any Clergy Member Convicted of Officiating at a Civil Union

DIGEST OF CASE

The clear meaning of the Discipline is that only a trial court has the power to set a penalty in a Church trial which results in a conviction and that the full legislated range of options must be available to a trial court in its penalty phase. The resolution adopted by the Northern Illinois Annual Conference clergy session is null, void, and of no effect.

STATEMENT OF FACTS

In the 2011 clergy session of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference, the following resolution was presented by the annual conference Board of Ordained Ministry:
Be it resolved that any Northern Illinois Clergy member who, in his/her best judgment, feels called to officiate at a Civil Union and then subsequently faces charges, and after due Disciplinary process is tried and convicted for such offense, that a suggested maximum penalty to assign would be the suspension of said convicted minister from the exercise of pastoral office for a period of 24 consecutive hours.

The official minutes of the clergy session record the following:
Rev. Scott Field requested information as to the basis and legality of the Resolution and asked whether, if approved, it would go to the Judicial Council for review and decision. Bishop Jung replied that the matter would be submitted for declaratory decision and that the Conference would be informed of the Church Council’s ruling. On that basis, the Motion was then made to approve the Resolution, on the understanding that it would be sent forward such review [sic]. Motion carried with a standing vote count of 174 (for) and 73 (against). There was no call for abstentions.


JURISDICTION

The Judicial Council has jurisdiction under ¶ 2610 of the 2008 Discipline.

ANALYSIS & RATIONALE

According to ¶ 2610.2 of the 2008 Discipline, only certain specified bodies have the authority to request a declaratory decision from the Judicial Council. One such specification, under ¶ 2610.2(j), grants this authority to “any annual conference on matters relating to annual conferences or the work therein.” The conduct of a judicial proceeding, including a trial of a clergy member on some chargeable offence, clearly is among the matters relating to the work of annual conferences. Since the Resolution adopted by the clergy session of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference relates to the determination of penalties where such trials result in convictions as described in ¶ 2711.3, the annual conference has the authority to request a declaratory decision with regard to the issues raised in the Resolution.
The question is whether the clergy session of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference actually did request a declaratory decision. There is no evidence in the record that the Resolution itself contained a request for a declaratory decision. There is no evidence in the record that any action was taken by the annual conference, subsequent to its adoption of the Resolution, to request that the Judicial Council make a declaratory decision. However, the record clearly shows that, in his reply to a question during discussion of the Resolution, the bishop interpreted the matter to have included within it a request for a declaratory decision. Indeed, the official minutes record that it was on the basis of the bishop’s response that a motion was offered to approve the Resolution. So the reply by the bishop was a material fact in the decision by the clergy session to consider and adopt a motion for approving the Resolution.
Under ¶ 2610, the Judicial Council “shall have jurisdiction to make a ruling in the nature of a declaratory decision as to the constitutionality, meaning, application, or effect of the Discipline or any portion thereof….” Strictly speaking, therefore, a declaratory decision by the Judicial Council is a determination of what the Discipline provides, not a determination of the merits of an action by an annual conference or any other body authorized to seek a declaratory decision. See Decisions 301, 434, 443, 454, and 474.
The meaning of the Discipline is clear in ¶ 2711. “The trial court shall have full power to try the respondent.” It does so within the boundaries of the Discipline for determining guilt. And the trial court alone has the authority to reach a determination with regard to a penalty in the circumstance where it has made a finding of guilt. Only the trial court has the authority to set a penalty, and it must do so within the range of options specified by the Discipline (¶ 2711.3). No other entity outside of the operations of the trial court can usurp it, modify it, supplant it, or enter a suggestion into the decision by the trial court as the Discipline makes clear.
The Resolution adopted by the clergy session of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference is framed as a “suggested” approach to a penalty. However, the meaning and the effect of the Discipline are to have named the range of options available to the trial court in the penalty phase of a Church trial. Any effort by an annual conference, even by means of a suggestion, to modify or to limit the legislation governing penalties is to intrude upon the authority which the Discipline grants to the trial court and is to alter the legislative action by the General Conference in describing the authority which the trial court has in the matter.

DECISION


The clear meaning of the Discipline is that only a trial court has the power to set a penalty in a Church trial which results in a conviction and that the full legislated range of options must be available to a trial court in its penalty phase. The resolution adopted by the Northern Illinois Annual Conference clergy session is null, void, and of no effect.



CONCURRING OPINION


The record provided demonstrates that the Annual Conference session acted to adopt the subject resolution. There is no clear indication that the Annual Conference also approved a request to petition the Judicial Council for a ruling in the nature of a declaratory decision. The official minutes of the Annual Conference indicate that the Annual Conference was assured by the presiding bishop that the resolution would be submitted to the Judicial Council for declaratory decision once it was adopted by the Annual Conference. Unlike a bishop’s decision of law, which is reviewed by the Judicial Council as a matter of course, an Annual Conference resolution is not subject to automatic review. A resolution adopted by an Annual Conference does not come to the Judicial Council for review unless there is some question raised in the proceedings of the Annual Conference as to the legality of the action and the Annual Conference takes specific action to request a ruling in the nature of a declaratory decision from the Judicial Council. Such a request would identify a specific disciplinary provision and request a ruling in the nature of a declaratory decision as to the meaning, application or effect of a specific paragraph of the Discipline. Against this backdrop we were asked to render a declaratory decision.
This Annual Conference resolution and others of similar ilk are worthy of Macbeth’s commentary: full of sound and fury signifying nothing. Judicial proceedings are governed under the provisions of ¶¶ 2701 – 2714. It is axiomatic that a jury should determine the penalty to be imposed upon a finding of guilty based on the unique facts and factors of the case, the evidence presented and the law as given by the Trial Court. Matters of judicial process must follow disciplinary rules pertaining thereto and should not be influenced by outside forces. It is wholly inappropriate for an Annual Conference to opine as to a standard or customary penalty to be universally imposed upon a finding of guilt after a Church trial. It would be equally improper for an Annual Conference to suggest that a maximum penalty should be imposed in every case upon a finding of guilty. I concur in the decision that the resolution is null, void and of no effect.

Jon R. Gray

Friday, October 28, 2011.


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