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Decision No. 1235

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April 19 2013
In Re: Request for a Declaratory Decision from Persons in the Northern Nigeria Annual Conference and the Southern Nigeria Annual Conference as to the Meaning, Effect, and Application of ¶ 405 in the Election Process of the West Africa Central Conference

Digest of Case

The Judicial Council does not have jurisdiction. Only those bodies authorized by the Discipline to make petitions to the Judicial Council may seek declaratory decisions.

Statement of Facts

The West Africa Central Conference met in Sierra Leone, October 4-8, 2012, for its eighth regular quadrennial session. Among the items of business was the election of a Bishop for the Nigeria Episcopal Area. According to the rules of the West Africa Central Conference that were adopted at the seventh quadrennial session in 2008, the term for a bishop was set at twelve years beginning with the 2012 election. In preparation for the Central Conference session and the episcopal election, on June 11, 2012, Bishop Arthur F. Kulah released a letter describing the process that was to be followed for the nomination and election. He designated the date and the site of the meeting as October 3-7, 2012, in Free Town, Sierra Leone. He called special sessions for each of the three annual conferences in the Nigeria Episcopal Area—Northern Nigeria Annual Conference on July 14, Central Nigeria Annual Conference on August 11, and Southern Nigeria Annual Conference on August 13—during which each was to select one nominee as a candidate for election. He stated that a joint session of the three conferences would be convened on September 15-16, so that the three nominees could meet all of the delegates of the three annual conferences. And he stipulated that the persons who would be authorized to participate in the election process were those who were listed as official “delegates” to the 2010 annual conferences. This “identification” process did not occur as scheduled, because the death of Mrs. Kulah—the wife of the Bishop—made it impossible to hold the meetings on the dates that had been announced. Meetings were held, however, on August 18 for the Southern Nigeria Annual Conference, August 25 for the Northern Nigeria Annual Conference, and August 27 for the Central Nigeria Annual Conference. Before the Central Conference Committee on Episcopacy presented its report on the candidates nominated by the Committee, Bishop Arthur F. Kulah of the Nigeria Area summarized the nomination process that had been followed in preparing for the election. The Committee on Episcopacy then reported that twenty candidates had been considered through the nomination process and that three emerged as the nominated candidates. In a total of 1,378 votes in the annual conferences for nomination, the results were that three nominees were ranked as follows: John Wesley Yohanna, 564 votes; Abainatus Akila Hamman, 199 votes; and Daniel Y. Korot, 105 votes. Bishop Julius Trimble, who was assigned by the Council of Bishops to preside at the episcopal election, assumed the chair. The Minutes of the 2012 West Africa Central Conference publish the names of sixty-five clergy and lay delegates and identify them from four Episcopal Areas: Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria. All of these delegates to the West Africa Central Conference received the curricula vitae for the three nominees. The Committee on Episcopacy then submitted these three names for election by secret ballot. Additional nominations from the floor were invited, but none was submitted. The delegates were then instructed to use ballot papers and to place one name on a ballot. The results of the ballot were announced as follows: sixty-five ballots were cast; eight ballots were invalid; fifty-seven ballots were valid; Rev. Korot received 00 votes; Rev. Hamman received 00 votes; Rev. Yohanna received 57 votes. Bishop Trimble announced that, having received 87.6% of the total votes cast, John Wesley Yohanna was elected Bishop. His consecration occurred on October 7, 2012. On October 10, 2012, a meeting of persons from Northern and Southern Nigeria Annual Conferences was convened. Invoking ¶ 603.6 of the 2008 Discipline, the group followed the procedure for choosing a presiding officer when there was no bishop to preside and elected The Rev. Philip Micah Dopah to be the presiding officer. Rev. Dopah announced that the meeting was convened because of the “inconsiderate action” by the West Africa Central Conference “to purportedly elect Rev. Johnwesley [sic] Yohanna as bishop of the Nigeria Area even after we had collectively written series of complaints to Bishop Kulah and Bishop John G. Innis, being the President of WACC.” He stated that a nomination process was not followed in Nigeria, and that “our delegates to WACC who were to go for election in Sierra Leone did not go because it was our collective decision since we sensed that the discipline was about to be circumvented, which it has.” The group, identifying itself as “The House,” adopted a resolution with fourteen enumerated points. In various particulars, the resolution asserts that the election was not done according to procedure of the Constitution, that “Johnwesley [sic] Yohanna” was not duly elected, that no allegiance will be offered to him, that no appointments will be accepted from him, that he will not be recognized “because of his moral bankruptcy,” and that the Northern and Southern Nigeria Annual Conferences “will seek redress for justice at the Judicial Council of the UMC.” One specification, namely item 11 in the resolution, states “that the Church should write both to the Judicial Council and to the West Africa Central Conference College of Bishops to express our displeasure for refusing to listen to our petitions.”

JURISDICTION

The Judicial Council does not have jurisdiction, given the requirements of ¶ 2610 of the 2008 Discipline.

ANALYSIS AND RATIONALE

What prompted the group to meet on October 10 was a set of concerns about the propriety of the nomination process and, hence, the legitimacy of the election. It is their contention that both the Southern Nigeria Annual Conference and the Northern Nigeria Annual Conference followed the guidelines outlined in the episcopal letter of June 11, but that the Central Nigeria Annual Conference did not. Specifically using the delegate list from 2010, they contend, should have meant the following numbers of persons were eligible to participation in the nomination or “identification” process: Northern Nigeria would have 156, plus 9 district lay leaders, for a total of 165; Southern Nigeria would have 671; and Central Nigeria would have 314. When the votes in the “identification” process were announced, however, the results showed the following: Northern Nigeria produced 165 votes out of an eligible total of 165; Southern Nigeria produced 644 votes out of an eligible total of 671; and Central Nigeria produced 567 votes compared to an eligible total of 314. Petitions were submitted by representatives of Southern Nigeria and Northern Nigeria Annual conferences to Bishop Kulah on August 31 and September 4 respectively, in which they challenged the outcome of the process. But these petitioners contend that Bishop Kulah did not respond to their pleas. On October 2, representatives of these two annual conferences wrote to Bishop John G. Innis, President of the College of Bishops, advising him of their concerns and notifying him that 13 of their delegates to the West Africa Central Conference would boycott the meeting in protest, while four delegates would attend to present their position. The present petition calls upon the Judicial Council to vacate the election that occurred on October 6 and the consecration on October 7. In response to this plea, the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church requests that the Judicial Council find that it lacks jurisdiction in this matter or, should the Judicial Council determine that it has jurisdiction, that the plea be denied on its merits. In the view of the Council of Bishops, John Wesley Yohanna was “validly nominated and elected as a bishop of the West Africa Central Conference.” The petitioners assert that the requirements of ¶ 405 in the 2008 Discipline were not followed in the process of nomination or “identification” that was described in the letter on June 11 from Bishop Kulah. However, the substance of their objection was not to the process per se but rather to the suspicions of irregularities in the voting during the “identification” process, which seemed to yield more votes than the Central Nigeria Annual Conference was eligible to cast. Yet there is no evidence that, even allowing for the accuracy of the claims that there were irregularities in voting during the nomination exercise, the outcome of the nomination process would have been different. And, while the resulting boycott by 13 delegates from two annual conferences may have had some impact on the eventual vote totals distributed among the three candidates, there is nothing decisively evident that the outcome of the balloting would have changed the results of the election. Nor is there evidence that any attempt was made during the balloting process to challenge the legitimacy of the election by the West Africa Central Conference. The question of jurisdiction is the critical element in this matter. In the 2008 Discipline, ¶ 2610.2f authorizes any annual conference to petition the Judicial Council “on matters relating to annual conferences or the work therein.” The issue in this matter is two-fold with regard to jurisdiction: whether the meeting convened on October 10, 2012, was indeed a meeting of an annual conference or of two annual conferences jointly; and whether the petition that emerged from the meeting pertained to annual conferences or the work therein. The real issue for the Judicial Council is that the petition submitted has come from a group without standing under the Discipline to bring such a petition to the Judicial Council. There is no evidence that the meeting on October 10 was a properly called session of an annual conference or a properly called joint session of two annual conferences. No Bishop called the meeting or designated the dates for it, as required by the 2008 Discipline (¶ 603.2 and .5). And since the body that has produced a petition to the Judicial Council lacks authority to submit such a matter to this body, the Judicial Council cannot make a decision that would appear to offer relief to the petitioners or affirmation of the election outcome. It may appear that certain irregularities occurred in the process. But these kinds of appearances are not the same as legal merit warranting a judicial decision.

Decision

The Judicial Council does not have jurisdiction. Only those bodies authorized by the Discipline to make petitions to the Judicial Council may seek declaratory decisions. Oswald Tweh recused himself and took no part in this decision. Beth Capen and Ruben Reyes were absent. Sandra Lutz, first lay alternate, and Warren Plowden, fifth lay alternate, participated in this decision.

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