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Decision No. 1130

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October 30 2009
In Re: Review of Decisions of Law by Bishop Elaine J. Stanovsky of the Yellowstone Annual Conference Regarding Clergy Withdrawal Between Sessions of Annual Conference

Digest of Case

A presiding bishop has no authority to review supervisory or judicial processes by way of a request for a bishop’s decision of law. A clergy member who surrenders ministerial credentials between sessions of an annual conference abandons fair process rights. Questions of law and the bishop’s decision of law must be entered into the annual conference journal as an exact statement of the question submitted and the ruling of the bishop.

Statement of Facts

During the clergy session of the 2009 Yellowstone Annual Conference, a retired clergy member of the annual conference submitted thirteen questions in writing in the nature of a request for a bishop’s decision of law. The minutes of the annual conference session reflect that the bishop acknowledged receipt of the questions and indicated her intent to answer the questions within the time frame set forth in ¶ 2609 of the 2008 Discipline. The bishop’s decisions of law have been reported to the Judicial Council for its review in accordance with said paragraph. As to the questions submitted, the bishop’s decision of law determined each of the questions to be out of order and each of the questions submitted to be improper, moot and hypothetical.

Jurisdiction
The Judicial Council has jurisdiction pursuant to ¶ 2609 of the 2008 Discipline.
Analysis and Rationale
Under the provisions of ¶ 2609, a presiding bishop may respond to a proper request for a bishop’s decision of law during an annual conference session. Paragraph 2609 also permits a bishop to respond to a request for a decision of law within thirty days after the close of the annual conference session. If a question is out of order from a parliamentary standpoint, it is imperative that the bishop rule the question out of order during the annual conference session. When a question is ruled out of order, the party submitting the question is entitled to appeal the bishop’s parliamentary ruling to the body then in session. A parliamentary ruling that is rendered after the close of the annual conference session deprives the body of its proper parliamentary remedy. The written questions that were submitted asked the bishop to decide the propriety of processes by which a clergy member surrendered ministerial credentials between sessions of the Annual Conference. In Decision 1055 the Judicial Council held that a clergy member who withdraws between annual conference sessions abandons fair process rights. In Memorandum 1064 the Judicial Council held that supervisory or judicial processes may not be reviewed by way of a request for a bishop’s decision of law submitted during an annual conference session. Violations of process alleged within a request for a bishop’s decision of law are not self proving, but can only be determined within the context of a record such as that developed in a church trial where factual findings are made. The Judicial Council is not a fact finding body. Our longstanding jurisprudence set forth in Decision 33 is that moot and hypothetical questions shall not be answered. A request for a bishop’s decision of law must relate to some action taken or proposed to be taken by the annual conference. Any member of an annual conference may submit a question to the presiding bishop; however, the bishop is under no obligation to answer a question that is improper, moot and hypothetical. In making a request for a bishop’s decision of law, members of the annual conference must identify the specific action taken or to be taken by the annual conference that is the subject of their inquiry. The bishop’s decision of law that the questions were moot, hypothetical and improper is affirmed. Paragraph 2609.6 of the 2008 Discipline reads as follows:
The Judicial Council shall pass upon and affirm, modify, or reverse the decisions of law made by bishops in central, district, annual, or jurisdictional conferences upon questions of law submitted to them in writing in the regular business of a session; and in order to facilitate such review, each bishop shall report annually in writing to the Judicial Council on forms provided by the council all the bishop’s decisions of law. No such Episcopal decision shall be authoritative, except in the case pending, until it has been passed upon by the Judicial Council, but thereafter it shall become the law of the Church to the extent that it is affirmed by the council. Normally, the bishop shall rule before the close of the annual conference session during which the question was submitted, but in no case later than thirty days after the close of the session. The annual conference secretary shall enter in the annual conference journal an exact statement of the question submitted and the ruling of the bishop. (emphasis added)
In her report to the Judicial Council, the bishop cited Decision 747 as authority to withhold publication of the thirteen questions and her decisions of law from the annual conference journal. In Decision 747, the Judicial Council determined that it was not necessary for the Judicial Council to quote the questions or answers submitted for review in the decision because the matters were considered privileged. Decision 747 should not be considered as a waiver of compliance with ¶ 2609.6 for bishops who preside over annual conference sessions. We are unaware of any provision of the Discipline that permits a presiding bishop to excise, redact or omit portions of proceedings conducted during the annual conference session or to treat any portion of the record of the annual conference session as confidential or that permits a bishop to render a decision of law in secret. To the extent that the bishop relies on Decision 747 as authority to withhold the questions and her rulings from the official conference record, said reliance is misplaced. Paragraph 2609.6 of the Discipline requires the annual conference secretary to enter into the annual conference journal an exact statement of the questions submitted and the ruling of the bishop. Closing or attempting to limit the annual conference record would frustrate the clear policy of the General Conference that favors openness and transparency in annual conference proceedings. There is no provision for confidential questions to, or confidential answers from a presiding bishop in an annual conference session. The provisions of paragraph ¶ 2609.6 are mandatory. We reverse the bishop’s decision of law in that regard and order full compliance with the provisions of ¶ 2609.6 of the Discipline. The thirteen questions submitted and the bishop’s rulings in response to those questions shall be included in the 2009 annual conference journal of The Yellowstone Annual Conference as an exact statement of the questions submitted together with the ruling of the bishop.

Decision

A presiding bishop has no authority to review supervisory or judicial processes by way of a request for a bishop’s decision of law. A clergy member who surrenders ministerial credentials between sessions of an annual conference abandons fair process rights and cannot obtain review by posing a question of law to a presiding bishop during an annual conference session. A presiding bishop has no authority to review supervisory or judicial processes by way of a request for a bishop’s decision of law. Questions of law and the bishop’s decision of law must be entered into the annual conference journal as an exact statement of the question submitted and the ruling of the bishop.

Concurring Opinion
The Judicial Council has repeatedly and consistently held that a presiding bishop has no authority to make substantive rulings on supervisory processes. Presiding bishops have no obligation to answer questions that are improper. Nevertheless, the questions asked become part of a public record because they are published in the annual conference journal. It is difficult to discern whether the questions asked in the open session of the Annual Conference resulted from a misguided attempt to help or were the result of a malicious intent to expose the person who is the subject of the inquiry to further harm and an increased risk of further disclosure of confidential information. The Discipline prescribes supervisory processes that include methods for the consideration of complaints against those who have violated confidentiality. Those processes are designed to protect persons involved in supervisory process from improper disclosures. The remedy for violation of confidentiality resides in those processes and not on the floor of an annual conference session. It strains my credulity to believe that improper questions such as those asked in the open session of the Annual Conference somehow bring resolution to any sensitive or confidential situation where supervisory process are involved. Jon R. Gray Katherine R. Mahle and Angela Brown join this concurring opinion. October 31, 2009

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