Judicial Council Decisions

Decision No. 1203

In Re: Review of a Bishop’s Decision of Law in the Mississippi Conference regarding the meaning, effect, and application of ¶¶ 1501.3, 1504.14 with reference to the Ministerial Pension Plan restated as the Clergy Retirement Security Program

DIGEST OF CASE

The decision of the Bishop that the question asked was moot and hypothetical is affirmed.

STATEMENT OF FACTS

During the morning Plenary Session of the Mississippi Annual Conference on Sunday, June 12, 2011, a question was raised by a clergy member, requesting a Bishop’s ruling in “regard to Sub-Paragraph 1504.14 and Subparagraph 1501.3 of the 2008 Book of Discipline with specific reference to the MPP portion of the ministerial plan.”
The Bishop stated there would be a response within 30 days, but asked the clergy member to give the Conference the substance of the question, which was “[W]ho has the right of distribution under the Book of Discipline?” The Bishop stated there would be a ruling by July 12. The Bishop’s decision of law was: “that the question was not germane to the regular business, consideration or discussion of the Conference session, nor was it raised during deliberation of a specific issue in a matter upon which the Conference was taking action; therefore, the question was hypothetical and should not be ruled upon.”
According to the minutes of plenary session of June 12th the Conference had two devotional sessions, two clergy ballot votes for delegates to the 2012 General Conference along with voting instructions, and a report on New Church Development. There was no indication from the record whether the issue raised by the clergy member was on the agenda for that or any other plenary session.
The complete question presented by the clergy member:
I am requesting Bishop’s Ruling on who has the right to make the Annuity Disbursement Decision, the clergy person or the GBOPHB, in regards to both Sub-Paragraph 1504.14 which states that the GBOP will “. . .discharge its fiduciary duties with respect to a benefit fund, plan, or program solely in the interest of the participants and beneficiaries and defraying reasonable expenses of administering the plan, with the care, skill, prudence, and diligence under the circumstances then prevailing that a prudent person
acting in a like capacity and familiar with such matters would use in the conduct of an enterprise of a like character and with like aims.


Jurisdiction


The Judicial Council has jurisdiction under ¶ 2609 of the 2008 Discipline.

Analysis and Rationale


In Decision 33, the Judicial Council ruled in reference to a fundamental principle:
Moot and hypothetical questions shall not be decided.” We are of the opinion that this same principle should apply to requests for rulings by the Bishops in an Annual or a District Conference and that any such request should be based upon some action taken or proposed to be taken by such Conference, wherein under the specific facts in each case some doubt may have arisen as to the legality of the action taken or proposed. It is not the duty of the presiding Bishop to rule upon any hypothetical question which may be propounded, nor to answer requests for information which involve no legal matter.

In Decision 790:
In this case, the request for an episcopal decision was broadly drafted,was not raised during deliberation of any specific issue and did not
state its connection to any specific action taken or to be taken by the Annual Conference. Therefore, the bishop is correct that his answer to this question would be merely informational.

In Decision 799: “A so-called ‘question of law,’ though properly presented, must relate to the business, consideration or discussion of the conference session.”
In the matter before us the question presented to the bishop did not request any action of the Annual Conference, nor did the question relate to the business of the plenary session.

DECISION

The decision of the Bishop that the question asked was moot and hypothetical is affirmed.

DISSENTING OPINION

I concur with what appear to be the sentiments of the bishop in this matter, namely that the question was not germane to the regular business or discussion of the conference, and that the question was moot and hypothetical.
However, the bishop chose to express those sentiments in a form other than one that actually involves making a decision of law. The official form for submitting a decision of law carries the signature of the bishop; yet attached to it is an unsigned document with three paragraphs that refer to her in the third person (“Bishop Ward is of the opinion that…”) and that declare, “…the question is hypothetical and shall not be ruled upon.”
In effect, by declining to respond to a request for decision of law, the bishop has deprived the clergy member of a constitutionally mandated response and has deprived the Judicial Council of its responsibility to “pass upon and affirm, modify, or reverse” a decision of law on the matter (¶2609.6) Since there was no decision of law made by the bishop, there is actually nothing for the Judicial Council to review.
Moreover, the bishop has failed to fulfill her clear constitutional responsibility, expressed in ¶51, that bishops “shall decide all questions of law…”
A bishop does not have the option of choosing not to issue a ruling on such a matter. A bishop does not have the freedom to choose whether to make a decision of law.

The Constitution of The United Methodist Church provides in ¶51 that
A bishop presiding over an annual, central, or jurisdictional conference shall decide all questions of law coming before the bishop in the regular business of a session, provided that such questions be presented in writing and that the decisions be recorded in the journal of the conference.

In applying that constitutional principle, the Judicial Council has established a long record of judgments about the nature of a decision of law and the requests that are appropriate to elicit such decisions from bishops.
Decision 33 said “that any such request should be based upon some action taken or proposed to be taken by such Conference, wherein under the specific facts in each case some doubt may have arisen as to the legality of the action taken or proposed.”
Decision 153 allowed that a decision of law “may or may not be concerned with the parliamentary procedure of the Conference session.”
Decision 799 said, “A so-called ‘question of law,’ though properly presented, must relate to the business, consideration or discussion of the conference session.”
Decision 847 cited 799 and interpreted it to declare that “Questions of law shall be germane to the regular business, consideration, or discussion of the Annual Conference and shall state the connection to a specific action taken, or the question must be raised during the deliberation of a specific issue of a matter upon which the conference takes action.”
These precedential rulings offer clear guidance to the church that requests for decisions of law and the decisions of law themselves should be constructed narrowly. Members of annual conferences, the delegates to the several central and jurisdictional conferences, the delegates to General Conference, and bishops should aspire to greater precision, in light of these precedents.
However, in addition to the Judicial Council decisions that identify aspects of requests for decisions of law that may cause them to be defective, there are other decisions by which the Judicial Council has made clear that a bishop cannot use such possible defects as grounds for declining to make decisions of law.
In Decision 746, the Judicial Council ruled “It is clear that a member is not required to seek and get recognition from the chair to present a question. A presiding bishop may not avoid a question by failing to recognize a member who is seeking to present a question.”
Further, Decision 799 makes clear that delivering a decision of law is not optional for a bishop. “The duty of the bishop is to respond with a ruling to all submitted questions of law. A ruling is required even if the ruling is simply that the question is moot, hypothetical or improperly submitted.”

William B. Lawrence

Friday, October 28, 2011.


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