RECONSIDERATION OF JCD 1230
JCD 1230 was the historic case which clarified Fair Process requirements in major ways and preserved a bishop’s episcopacy, giving him a new chance in another conference.
Unfortunately, we are given nothing of the arguments of those who sought reconsideration. Ordinarily, only parties-at-interest have the right to seek reconsideration, though occasionally the Council responds to bishops who are not parties-at-interest. We do not even know who brought the request let alone what the substance of their argument might be. It would be enlightening to know who brought the request, what their argument was, and how that argument was viewed by the Council.
The Judicial Council has been posting its dockets on line for years now. The General Conference asked them to post the requests for their docket, which means everyone can see in detail what is being brought to them for their consideration. In the case of reconsideration requests, those are not posted unless they are accepted for reconsideration. When they are not, as in the four cases here, there is no back-up information posted on the docket list.
Update: United Methodist Reporter, just before it ended its century of publishing church news, provided some but not all issues that were involved in reconsideration. It can be found on line at http://www.unitedmethodistreporter.com/2013/05/costs-are-in-implications-still-debated-in-bishop-bledsoe-controversy/
For a complete critique of the article, contact me. But let me note a few things brought out in the article.
The spelling out of the costs incurred related to Bishop Bledsoe’s case should shed light on what current church litigation actually costs. For example, an average church trial costs a conference $100,000 in housing, transportation, and meals for the trial court (jury) and the trial staff (presiding bishop, his legal counsel, and an administrative assistant; the Counsel for the Church and the lawyer who is assistant counsel; the secretary and sergeant at arms; the witnesses for the church which may require experts; and the thirty or so others brought in as the pool for the trial court. The services of the transcriptionist, custodial services for the site, a stipend for wear and tear on the facilities used for the trial, and miscellaneous other things add to those costs. The administrative costs for the hearings for Bishop Bledsoe were not as expensive but they were notable enough to be included in the article. Has anyone ever reported such costs to the annual conference where a trial was held? Has the budget General Conference passed or audited ever detailed such costs? Church funds pay for the prosecution.
The pastor facing a major hearing on his/her performance or character has costs that are often quite close to what the church pays or may even be more depending on how long the proceedings leading up to the trial (hearing) and appeals takes. Bishop Bledsoe’s costs were noted by the Judicial Council and they ordered that the Jurisdiction pay all of his costs including legal fees. The average pastor trying to survive the hearings and appeals faces those same costs! The Judicial Council has put a spotlight on them. This is the first time there has been a serious attempt to make whole a pastor’s life and finances after having a case against him overturned.
The denomination has hidden the costs it has to prosecute and never acknowledged the costs to the respondent. No wonder there was so much consternation when the costs Bishop Bledsoe had came to light and had to be paid for by the Church.
A second concern relates to the “precedent” of having a third party intervene between the jurisdiction and its handling of bishops. What is overlooked is that the Judicial Council is constantly called in to settle other disputes and has jurisdiction to do it.
A third concern noted in the UM Reporter article was the fear of involvement of lawyers in church matters. Overlooked by that concern is that the bishops and denomination have used lawyers for generations but practically disbar use if lawyers by pastors or laity against the Church. The instant case sheds light on the reality of how one-sided the upper levels of the Church feel about lawyers. When the upper echelons have the privilege of legal assistance and the lower levels are not allowed similar possibilities, then maybe we need to take away the privilege from the elite to level the playing field.
A fourth concern that may have been raised was conflicts of interest which I think were not really there in the direct sense indicated in the article. The Council did not even agree with much of the argument of the former Council member who represented the bishop. The painful problem of the advocate’s legal fees being fully paid by the jurisdiction from apportionment funding was not contrary to church law. Respondents have been paying comparable costs out of their own pockets for years and this is the first time those costs have become public and have had to be reimbursed by the church, as stated above. The appearance of “revolving door” politics where a former Council member can invite work from bishops is novel but the use of former members of the Council to do legal work in the church is not new.
I do not wish to appear to dismiss possible ethical questions. My own experience has been to provide help to people in trouble at no expense other than occasional costs for things like travel, housing, and printing. Pastors in trouble can rarely afford to pay for church legal services, though those who push to prove their innocence tend to deplete their financial future resources seeking justice at the cost levels the bishop did. The introduction of the idea of a person seeking business and financial recompense in the church because of previous experience within the system needs to be given serious review. In addition, the appearance of possible conflict of interest when the advocate was an instructor of the Council in its orientation needs to be examined. Though no cases were discussed at the time, no one knows that for sure but the advocate and the Council.
What would be closer to ideal would be for the Church to acknowledge the actual costs of legal actions and seek other ways to resolve contentious events using alternative dispute resolutions and being willing to pay for them. Minimize the higher cost legal action to be genuinely the last resort.