Friday, December 16, 2011

Texas Supreme Court to Hear San Angelo Case

In an announcement released this morning, the Supreme Court of Texas has granted the petition for review filed by the Church of the Good Shepherd, San Angelo, as a result of its loss in the Court of Appeal to the Diocese of Northwest Texas. (I discussed that opinion in this earlier post; the page summarizing the litigation is here.) Oral argument is set for February 29, 2012 at Texas A & M University, in Laredo, beginning at 9 A.M.

[UPDATE 02/29/2012: The petitioners moved to reset the date for oral arguments, and the Court granted their motion on February 27. As of this writing, no new date has been set yet for the oral argument. However, the postponement of this case could allow oral arguments in it to be consolidated with the arguments in the Fort Worth Appeal, which will not be full briefed until March 23, and which will have its oral argument set by the Court in May or June.]

This is an important milestone for the law of church property in Texas. The last time the Supreme Court decided such a case was in 1909; the San Angelo case will provide an ideal vehicle with which to hold that Texas courts must follow and apply "neutral principles of law" in such cases. (One reason for granting review was that the Court of Appeal had left it up to the lower courts whether to apply neutral principles or not, and remain with the old "deference" standard of Watson v. Jones. For more explanation of the background here, read this post, and then this one.)

Moreover, the grant of review by the Texas Supreme Court has important implications for the Fort Worth case, which the Court is still holding on its docket. (Bishop Iker and his diocese requested that the Supreme Court accept direct review of the Tarrant County District Court's summary judgment, without going first through the Court of Appeal.) Since the Supreme Court has not yet signaled what it will do in the Fort Worth case, it could well be that it plans to decide the San Angelo case, and then, if how that decision comes out gives rise to any principles which could be dispositive, it could either decide the Fort Worth petition summarily, or refer it to the Court of Appeal with directions to follow the same principles. Or it could also set the Fort Worth case for full briefing and oral argument.

In any event, the fact that the San Angelo case will proceed to a final and authoritative decision is cheerful news for Bishop Iker and his diocese.

1 comment:

  1. A.S.,
    This is good news for both San Angelo and Ft. Worth. I am a little concerned and perhaps really confused. IF TEC prevails in this one case, and let’s assume it would only do so because of the “Dennis Canon”, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Ft. Worth would ultimately lose any hearing with the high court as well, correct? Could the Justices read that the Dennis Canon applies to parishes leaving a diocese and then rule that the Dennis Canon doesn’t apply to an entire Diocese separating from TEC? After all, they could agree that a diocese has claim to parish property but TEC doesn’t have claim to diocese and thus parish property.

    I see too that both sides will present their case not at the Supreme Court in Austin but rather on a college campus. That’s interesting – wonder if it will be a video conference? Also, 20 minutes for each side. Is that normal in a supreme court hearing to have such little time? In your expert legal opinion, who has the upper hand in this hearing? I would say San Angelo does as they can simply speak to Jones v Wolf, property rights, freedom of religion and neutral principals; while TEC will have to, in 20 minutes, explain why an office at 815 NY ultimately owns that parish for which they paid zero for and for which their name isn’t on any of its property documents.

    This will be interesting for sure.