Monday, February 23, 2015

SC Court Makes Short Shrift of ECUSA's Motion

As reported here, the Episcopal Church (USA) and its rump group in South Carolina filed a 182-page motion for reconsideration with Circuit Court Judge Diane S. Goodstein, asking her to reverse her earlier decision in favor of Bishop Lawrence, the trustees and the parishes of his Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina. Late this afternoon, Judge Goldstein filed a response denying their motion.

Once you get past all the parties who had to be served with it, Judge Goldstein's order disposing of ECUSA's motion is just two pages in length. She first notes that the largest part of the motion was simply a regurgitation of the draft judgment ECUSA had submitted at the end of the post-trial briefing, and the arguments it had made during the trial -- all of which she had rejected in her 46-page opinion finding in Bishop Lawrence's favor:
This matter is before the Court by way of Defendants' motion for reconsideration brought forth pursuant to South Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure 59(e). The Court has studied Defendant's lengthy motion extensively and oral argument would not be of assistance to the Court. The Court finds that the motion raised no novel issues for the Court's consideration with the exception of the doctrine of judicial estoppel raised on pages 47 and 48 of Defendants' Motion. Large portions of the motion are simply the proposed orders previously submitted to the Court or reiterations of the Defendants' positions at trial. 
Next Judge Goodstein addresses the defendants' judicial estoppel argument. Her explanation of the doctrine is as good as I could give, and is further grounded in applicable South Carolina precedent:
The Court finds that the Judicial Estoppel argument is without merit. The South Carolina Supreme Court defined Judicial Estoppel as "(l) two inconsistent positions taken by the same party or parties in privity with one another; (2) the positions must be taken in the same or related proceedings involving the same party or parties in privity with each other; (3) the party taking the position must have been successful in maintaining that position and have received some benefit; ( 4) the inconsistency must be part of an intentional effort to mislead the court; and (5) the two positions must be totally inconsistent." Cothran v. Brown, 357 S.C. 210, 215-16, 592 S.E.2d 629, 632 (2004).
The ECUSA attorneys had argued that in the All Saints Waccamaw litigation, that began in 2000 under Bishop Lawrence's predecessor and had finally been decided only in 2009, the then Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina had argued that parishes could not amend their articles so as to leave the Diocese, and that the Dennis Canon prevented any parish from taking its property with it. They noted that under Bishop Lawrence, the Diocese reversed those positions -- after the South Carolina Supreme Court held that the Dennis Canon had no legal effect in South Carolina and that nothing in the governing documents prevented All Saints from amending its corporate articles, Bishop Lawrence not only had declined to petition for review of the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, but he had even given quitclaim deeds to each of his parishes in recognition of the fact that the Diocese had no legal interest in their properties.

So, ECUSA argued, Bishop Lawrence should have been prevented, by the doctrine of "judicial estoppel," from so changing course and citing All Saints as a precedent to Judge Goodstein. Instead, they contended, he was required to stick to the same old arguments his predecessor had made before the South Carolina Supreme Court's 2009 ruling.

Except -- their argument overlooked one small but highly significant detail: as a decision by the State's highest court, All Saints Waccamaw is binding on all churches similarly situated -- including specifically, the Episcopal Church which had lost its argument to that Court -- and on all lower courts in South Carolina. Look at how Judge Goodstein disposes of ECUSA's present argument in one paragraph:
The All Saints matter is a separate and distinct matter from the current litigation. Further, the positions of the Diocese in All Saints were found to be incorrect. If the Defendants' argument in the instant action was correct, no party previously adjudicated to be wrong would be able to correct their conduct in compliance with a court's holding. Such a result would be contrary to all sense of justice and order. Further, there is no evidence that the inconsistent positions were part of an intentional effort to mislead the court. The Doctrine of Judicial Estoppel does not apply.
So much for that futile argument, ECUSA. But Judge Goldstein reserves the best for last. Here are the final three lines of her order, reproduced exactly as she wrote them, with her final punctuation:
With regards all other matters presented in Defendants' Motion for Reconsideration, they are hereby DENIED.  
In light of this order and the earlier one by the Illinois judge a few days ago, one gets the feeling that the courts these days are getting somewhat disgusted with ECUSA's inability to understand when its opponents have won.


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