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South Carolina Episcopalians

November 19, 2018

Lawrence's Lead Lawyer Lashes Out at State Supreme Court

Beaufort Attorney Runyan pressuring Orangeburg judge to undo Court's 2017 ruling in the Lawrence case; Today's session was largely a rehash of written opinions and offered nothing new

SC Circuit Judge Edgar Dickson started this morning’s hearing on the implementation of the 2017 Supreme Court decision on the lawsuit, brought by disaffected Episcopalians against the Church, with an attempt at poking fun at himself. 

He asked the 80 lawyers and observers in the courtroom to raise their hands if they anticipated his ruling on any aspect of the case today.  Only one hand in the audience went up.  
Dickson congratulated the man on his optimism and in a lighthearted way made it clear that nothing would be happening other than an oral rehashing of earlier written filings.

The audience, comprised of litigants who’ve been slamming each other for nearly six years, was largely stone-faced at the judge's attempt to lighten things up.

Dickson's genial manner aside, litigation-weary lawyers, clergy, staff, and laypeople from each side listened patiently to the lead attorneys this morning for nearly 90 minutes, hoping for a crack in the other side's heavily-armored positions or a tell-tale slip of the tongue by the judge himself. 

They were disappointed. 

Lawrence lawsuit nearly six-years-old

By way of background, former bishop Mark Lawrence filed a massive lawsuit against the Church in 2013, aimed at spiriting away an estimated $500 million in Church property and financial assets for his own, self-styled "diocese."  At the time, he had just abandoned his position as the legitimate Bishop of the legitimate Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina.

In 2015 the state's high court determined that only seven of 36 parishes that had joined him in the lawsuit could leave the Church with their properties intact.  The remaining 29 parishes, the corporate entity called "The Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina" and its assets - including Camp St. Christopher - were determined by the Court to belong to the Church. 

Lawrence appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court that announced last June it would not hear the appeal, effectively leaving the decision of the state's high court in place.

The state Supreme Court justices "remitted" their decision to Dickson for implementation, since the Lawrence lawsuit originated in the state's three-county First Judicial District where Dickson serve as the administrative judge.

Lawrence's attorney trashes Supreme Court decision zeroing in on the current Chief Justice

It should be a routine matter.

However, Lawrence's lead attorney Alan Runyan left little doubt today that he will try to re-challenge the the Supreme Court ruling by pressuring Dickson into making an error that can then be used to appeal to the state Supreme Court.  His strategy is what we would call, the "kitchen sink" approach - meaning he is throwing everything he can at the August 2017 ruling, hoping something sticks even though Dickson has no authority to retry any part of the case.

Runyan spent 45 minutes today in front of Dickson trying to do just that.

To hear Runyan explain it, the Supreme Court failed to address any of the key issues in the case sufficiently to allow Dickson to implement the decision.   Runyan argued that the justices apparently did not review each parish's legal situation separately (we don't know where he got that) and therefore it was up to Dickson to do it.

As part of his attack on the decision, Runyan brought an elaborate powerpoint presentation to court to outline what he claims are  inconsistencies in the justices' written opinions, arguing their lack of consistency or clear consensus made the decision "unenforceable."

To make his point, Runyan appeared to have lifted sentences and even sentence fragments in the justices' opinions out of context to justify his argument.  Anyone in the audience unfamiliar with the full context of the opinions would have thought the justices to be completely incompetent.

All Saints:  The precedent that never was

To no one's surprise, Runyan is determined to magically resurrect the ghost of the 2009 state Supreme Court ruling in the matter of All Saints' Episcopal Church in Pawleys Island ... even though it was abandoned by four of five justices in the Lawrence case.

Lawrence's original  lawsuit was constructed around the Court's unanimous decision in the All Saints' case, by which it overturned a lower court decision favoring the Church's ownership claim on the property of a parish that claimed its independence.   The opinion was written by then-Chief Justice Jean Toal, who also presided in the Lawrence case. 

Unfortunately for Runyan and Lawrence, the circumstances of the All Saints' case were not an exact match with the Lawrence case.   Church attorneys were warned by the justices privately in 2009 that they did not see the result in the All Saints' as an established precedent in future Church property cases since the Episcopal Bishop in the earlier case had issued a quitclaim deed in 1902 relinquishing the Church's interest in All Saints' property.

Runyan singling out Chief Justice Beatty

Since the state Supreme Court's decision in the Lawrence case was handed down 16 months ago, Lawrence's high command including Runyan have conducted a high profile smear campaign against Associate Justice Kaye Hearn, who is an Episcopalian and voted with the majority in the Lawrence case. 

Lost in the public attacks on Hearn was what appears to have been a personal axe the brteakaways have to grind with Chief Justice Don Beatty.  As was evident today, Runyan believes that it was Beatty's opinion in the Lawrence case was source of the confusion and inconsistencies he (Runyan) sees in the ruling.

However, Runyan's perceived animosity toward Beatty may stem from his assumption that Beatty should have voted with Lawrence and the breakaways.  Beatty was one of the justices on the All Saints decision, and Runyan's entire strategy was based on his voting with Toal and Associate Justice Kittridge.

Runyan's excessive confidence in his imagined three-vote majority could well have been the reason he failed to challenge the participation of Associate Justice Kay Hearn in the case.  Justice Hearn's home parish in Conway was among the seven allowed to leave the Church.

The Church responds

Tom Tisdale, the Chancellor of the Episcopal Church in South Carolina, responded to Runyan's barrage by defending the Supreme Court's decision and pointing to its rejection of the All Saints' case as a precedent in this case.   He also cited numerous instances where the justices made it clear that they regarded their decision in the Lawrence matter as "final" and did not authorize Dickson to retry any parts of the case as Runyan apparently wants him to do.

Tisdale has repeatedly reminded Dickson that then-Chief Justice Toal included in her opinion precisely what the justices had agreed to and their expectations for implementation.

When facts don't support your case, argue confusion

In the trial of the lawsuit in 2014, Runyan was exceptionally successful in confusing presiding Judge Diane Goodstein to the point that her resolution of the case was to sign off on a proposed order Runyan had mostly drafted. 

Runyan is taking the same approach with Dickson. Almost all of Runyan's presentation today focused on what appears to be inconsistencies in the justices' legal reasoning in their opinions.  Making it even more complicated, he subtly mischaracterized the opinions of the five justices to his advantage.

Unfortunately for the Church side, this tactic seems to play into the judge's concerns about the complexities of the case and his ruminations on how he should proceed.  

Dickson is even echoing Runyan's oft-stated nuances that there is something wrong with a Supreme Court decision in which all five justices issue written opinions. (Of the five justices in the case, three are current or former chief justices whose legacies include this case.  In the view of SC Episcopalians it would have been a surprise if all five justices did not write opinions in such a landmark case  The ruling potentially affects hundreds of thousands of Christians in South Carolina.)

One of the most interesting lawyers in the courtroom over the past six years has been Mary Kostel, the Chancellor to the Bishop of Washington DC, and legal counsel to the Presiding Bishop.  She has an exceptional talent for finding a perfect way forward when issues get bogged down.

Today, Ms. Kostel, in a very quiet and respectful way, rebuffed Runyan's attempt to lead Dickson down a rabbit hole, by reminding him that his job is to "discern" the result the justices intended, and leave the interpretation of their legal reasoning to judges in future Church property cases.

However ...

SC Episcopalians is not an attorney (though we act like it sometimes).  We also are not affiliated with any diocese though this blog is clearly written to inform traditional Episcopalians about events and legal actions that could affect them.

That being said, we were annoyed with the Judge today. 

However, absolutely nothing was presented in court that was not already covered by the Supreme Court ruling, the written filings by both sides, and records of earlier proceedings.  Lots of lawyers, including some from out-of-state, were there.  Church and parish officials were there, as well as laypeople whose spiritual homes have been cast into chaos by endless delays by the courts.  

Today's session was expensive and time-consuming for congregations on both sides, and seemed to have no point. 

It took two years for the original trial court to get around to hearing this case.   Another two years for the Supreme Court to act, and then another seven months for the U.S, Supreme Court to determine that it would allow the state's decision to stand. 

There is a related case, filed in Federal Court in April 2013.   It is finally scheduled for trial in early March -- six years after it was filed. 

The August 2017 ruling was "remitted" to Judge Dickson more than twelve months ago.  We were particularly disappointed that Dickson opened today's session in Orangeburg the same way he opened a meeting with the attorneys in August ... with a complaint about the case being complicated and that his not understanding what he is supposed to do with it.

That is really the wrong message to send to this crowd.  None of them are going to say "Hey, it is complicated, so let's just give up and walk away."   Similarly, when the judge said he didn't know what the Court expected of him, even non-lawyers in the room were questioning if he had even read Chief Justice Toal's opinion. (which they all had).

Our suggestion to the judge is if you are not prepared to move forward, don't pull everyone together until (a) you are ready, and (b) can speak with confidence about role and your ability to get the job done.