Judicial Council Decisions Search
Decision No. 563
April 17 1986
In Re: Appeal of Robert Wong
Digest of Case
The ruling of the Court of Appeals of the Western Jurisdiction in the appeal of Robert Wong is sustained.
Statement of Facts
Robert Wong, a ministerial member of the California-Pacific Conference, was found guilty of one charge of immorality, two charges of disobedience to the Order and Discipline of the United Methodist Church, and one charge of failure to perform the work of the ministry. The penalty was termination of conference membership and surrender of credentials, assessed by the Trial Court on June 6, 1985, and affirmed by the ministerial members of the California-Pacific Annual Conference in executive session on June 14, 1985. The accused filed an appeal with the Court of Appeals of the Western Jurisdiction. The decision of that court was announced on October 10, 1985. The conviction of failure to perform the work of the ministry was vitiated because that charge had not been filed until after the date of the trial had been set. The other convictions and the penalty were sustained. The accused filed an appeal with the Judicial Council on five grounds, summarized here: 1. The accused was not brought face to face with all of his accusers during the investigation; 2. The accused was denied the right to act as his own counsel during the investigation; 3. The accused was denied the right at the trial to pursue questions about the appropriateness of the procedures of the Committee on Investigation; 4. The accused was denied his right to attend all meetings of the Committee on Investigation; 5. The accused was denied his disciplinary right to a closed trial. At an oral hearing before the Judicial Council on April 17, 1986, the Rev. Frank Finkbiner appeared for the church, and the Rev. Thomas Griffith appeared for the accused. The Rev. Harold Johnson, chairman of the Committee on Investigation, also appeared. JURISDICTION The Judicial Council has jurisdiction under 2625 of the 1984 Discipline. ANALYSIS Of the five grounds for appeal submitted to the Judicial Council, only three (numbers 1, 4, and 5) were included among those heard and decided by the Court of Appeals of the Western Jurisdiction. The questions raised in numbers 2 and 3 received only incidental mention in arguments on other issues before the court, and were not the subject of rulings. Therefore, neither number 2 nor number 3 is before the Judicial Council. We find that the ruling of the Court of Appeals on grounds 1, 4, and 5 is in keeping with church law. In 2623, it is clear that the accuser is the person who signs the written accusation on which a charge is based. If possible, the accused and the accuser, so defined, shall be brought face to face. However, that same paragraph specifically provides that failure to achieve this does not invalidate the investigation. It is not required that the accused shall be brought face to face with every witness appearing in support of the original accusation, nor is the accused guaranteed the right to attend every meeting of the Committee on Investigation. The accused is assured of a closed trial if desired, as maintained in ground number 5; but our examination of the available records persuades us that the brief presence of the area bishop and a district superintendent in the room where the Trial Court was in session was incidental and of no prejudicial significance in the conduct or outcome of the trial.
The ruling of the Court of Appeals of the Western Jurisdiction in the appeal of Robert Wong is sustained. DECISION NO. 563 CONCURRING OPINION I agree with the result reached by the majority but find its analysis to be faulty. While the Judicial Council has the power of review, it should exercise its appellate jurisdiction consistent with the authority given to it by the General Conference. Here it fails to do so. The Discipline contains a step by step procedure relative to investigations, trials and appeals for ministerial members. 2620 lists preliminary assumptions which are "as much for the protection of the rights of individuals guaranteed under Section III, Article IV  of our Constitution as they are for the protection of the church." 2621 lists the chargeable offenses which entitle a ministerial member to a Trial. 2622 sets forth the guidelines to which the charges are subject. 2631.1, .3 list investigation procedures. 2624.1, .3 detail trial procedures. 2625.1(g) states the jurisdiction of the Jurisdictional Court of Appeals when an appeal is made from the trial court is: The Appellate Court shall determine two questions only. (1) Does the weight of the evidence sustain the charge or charges? (2) Were there such errors of law as to vitiate the verdict and/or penalty? There are two grounds for appeal to the Judicial Council by a ministerial member from an adverse ruling by a Jurisdictional Court of Appeals. (1) 2614 states: The Judicial Council shall have power to review an opinion or decision of a Committee on Appeals of a Jurisdictional Conference if it should appear that such opinion or decision is at variance with an opinion or decision of a Committee on Appeals of another Jurisdictional Conference on a question of law. (2) 2625.3(a) states: The jurisdictional court of appeals shall have full power to hear and determine appeals of ministerial members taken from any Annual Conference within the jurisdiction. The court shall elect its own president and secretary and shall adopt its own rules of procedure, and its decisions shall be final, except that an appeal may be taken to the Judicial Council only upon questions of law related to procedure of the Jurisdictional Court of Appeals, or under the provisions of 2614. These grounds for appeal to the Judicial Council are exclusive; no other grounds may be considered. Nothing in this appeal to the Judicial Council alleges another Jurisdictional Court of Appeals has rendered a conflicting decision. Furthermore, all of the grounds for appeal relate either to actions of the Committee on Investigation (grounds 1-4) or at the trial (ground 5). None of them concern "questions of law related to procedures of the Jurisdictional Court of Appeals." (Emphasis supplied.) The final provision relevant to determining what the Judicial Council may consider on appeal is 2625.1(i) which states: In all cases the right to present evidence shall be exhausted when the case has been heard once on its merits in the proper court, but questions of law may be carried on appeal, step by step, to the Judicial Council ... This would appear to provide the necessary foundation for the Judicial Council to hear the appeal as proposed by the majority. It is, however, necessary to include the last clause of 2625.1(i) which reads "according to the provisions of the Book of Discipline." As has been pointed out, the only pertinent provisions of the Book of Discipline relating to matters which may be considered by the Judicial Council are 2614 and 2625.3(a). The Discipline is clear: The Jurisdictional Court of Appeals has authorityonly to review questions relating to the sufficiency of the evidence and errors of law in proceedings before the trial court. The Judicial Council has authority to review the opinion or decision of the Jurisdictional Court of Appeals only (1) if the opinion of the Jurisdictional Court of Appeals is at variance with that of a Court of Appeals of another Jurisdictional Conference; or (2) if there is a question of law related to the procedures of the Jurisdictional Court of Appeals. The plain fact is that the General Conference has decided that on the issue of sufficiency of the evidence before the trial court the Jurisdictional Court of Appeals and not the Judicial Council is the final authority. The General Conference has also determined in all other issues of law the decision of the Jurisdictional Court of Appeals is final with but two exceptions, neither of which are present in this case. Although the result reached by the majority is correct-the opinion of the Jurisdictional Court of Appeals should sustained-its rationale is utterly without foundation. Much as the Judicial Council might wish to believe it is the final authority on all matters relative to the trial of a ministerial member, this not the view of the General Conference as contained in the Discipline. The authority of the Judicial Council to consider appeals from the trial of a ministerial member is not plenary; it is limited. The procedures set forth in 2620-2626 are straightforward, sequential and written so as to be understood by lay and clergy alike. With this opinion the majority simply ignores the language of the Discipline and creates a power of review for the Judicial Council where none before existed. JAMES DOLLIVER April 18, 1986 DECISION NO. 563 DISSENTING OPINION I dissent. I am most disturbed by several violations of the law that occurred during the trial process. The Discipline requires that church trials are to be regarded as an expedient of last resort and that such trials should be held only after every reasonable effort has been made to correct the problem. (2624.1(a)) The record is silent as to any efforts that were ever attempted to correct the complaints. Prior to the first meeting of the Committee on Investigation, the district superintendent advised Rev. Wong that he had received complaints in a letter from six members of his parish. The correspondence further advised that Rev. Wong should voluntarily surrender his credentials or that he should be prepared to face a church trial. The complaints had not been formally investigated in the Committee at that time. The correspondence expressly indicated that Rev. Wong's days in the conference were numbered in that there were no other Chinese parishes in the conference to which he could be assigned. That advice violated the law of the Church and it made a mockery of open itineracy. Despite that ultimatum, the district superintendent did not attach the kind of seriousness or magnitude to the complaints as that which followed in the judicial system. The appellate court found errors at every level of the proceedings-investigation and trial. The Court also ruled that the errors were inconsequential and that the verdict should not be disturbed because of these minor infractions of procedural law. The right to confrontation and the right to counsel are amongst the cornerstone of fairness in our judicial system. The analogy between a grand jury in our secular life and the investigation for trials within the church is without merit. 2623 provides that an accused should be brought face to face with his accusers. There is no such requirement in the civil law. Rev. Wong was not permitted to confront his accusers because of an erroneous interpretation of the law by the chairperson of the Committee on Investigation. Rev. Wong can waive that right but the chairperson is not empowered to waive the accused's presence when the accused has not committed any act that would disrupt the purposes of the committee. 2623 does not place a limitation on counsel at the investigation stage but 2624 does provide that counsel must come from the ministerial ranks when the accused is a ministerial member of the church. We have no way of knowing what results the Committee on Investigation would have reached if Rev. Wong had been allowed to confront his accusers and to represent himself at the meetings of the investigation committee. We do know that only three of the original charges have survived the appellate process. There was an acquittal on one and the other was ruled that it was improperly drawn. We also know that some of the other complaints were not reported by the committee. The test is not guilt or innocence but the overriding issue is that every accused is entitled to be tried through a fair process. Rev. Wong is entitled to be tried on charges that have been found by a committee which did not deny his rights of confrontation and counsel. The cost and time involved in a new trial are not valid substitutes for the denial of one's rights. The charges that were returned by the Committee on Investigation are null and void because the Committee denied Rev. Wong his rights under our Discipline. These errors are more than sufficient to vitiate the entire trial process. There is no need to deal with the other irregularities that occurred during the trial. The case should be remanded so that a trial process can be conducted from beginning to end in accordance with the safeguards of our Discipline. WILLARD H. DOUGLAS JR. April 18, 1986