(Updated with comment from the ACNA diocese)
By Kirk Petersen
Ten days after a state circuit court judge essentially overruled the South Carolina Supreme Court, the Episcopal Church (TEC) has asked the judge to reconsider, saying the judge exceeded his authority.
On June 19, Circuit Court Judge Edgar Dickson ruled that 29 disputed church properties rightfully belong to the parishes and diocese that left TEC and are now affiliated with the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). This came nearly three years after the state Supreme Court ruled the properties belong to the TEC-affiliated diocese.
In a 23-page motion announced June 29, TEC and its Diocese of South Carolina said Dickson’s ruling is the only example they can find where a circuit court “reinstates a result the Supreme Court expressly reversed – basically, an order by the Circuit Court overruling a determination by the Supreme Court.”
Dickson, noting that the five justices of the Supreme Court issued five opinions that overlapped in a variety of ways, said the situation “requires this Court to confront and determine the intent of the Supreme Court in the Collective Opinions. Any ambiguity must be resolved by this Court.”
In asking for reconsideration, TEC and its diocese said “this Court did not need to deconstruct the reasoning of the five justices’ opinions to determine their effect on the result in this case. The Supreme Court already did that.”
In a reference to the original trial judge, Diane Goodstein, who in 2015 had ruled in favor of the ACNA-affiliated parties, TEC and its diocese wrote, “while there was a divergence in rationale on the legal issues, the Supreme Court and its individual justices agreed on one thing: Judge Goodstein’s rulings on the remaining issues in this case were reversed by a 3-2 vote.”
Molly Hamilton, director of communications for TEC’s Diocese of South Carolina, said the motion for reconsideration is a necessary procedural step before TEC can appeal Dickson’s ruling. When asked if there is a specified time frame for Dickson to rule on the motion to reconsider, she said, “unfortunately, no.”
When asked if Dickson might take another three years to reconsider, she said, “I hope not.”
The Rev. Canon Jim Lewis, canon to the ordinary for the ACNA-affiliated Anglican Diocese of South Carolina, issued the following statement on behalf of the diocese:
“Judge Dickson’s decision faithfully expresses the law of the case and the Collective Opinion of the South Carolina Supreme Court. That was his task and obligation. We are grateful he has done so with clarity and thoroughness. Today’s request for a rehearing by TEC is the predictable next legal step on a road that is expected to lead back to the Supreme Court for their final resolution of this case.”
Lurking in the wings is an opportunity for further delay, in the form of the Anglican diocese’s claim under the state’s Betterments statute. That statute holds that South Carolinians who make improvements on a property in the good-faith belief that they own the property can seek compensation for those improvements in the event of a ruling that someone else is the legal owner.
Dickson previously declined to dismiss the Anglicans’ betterments motion. The motion currently is moot because Dickson has ruled that the ACNA diocese owns the properties, but betterments could come into play again if Dickson’s ruling on ownership is reversed.