Legislative petitions to direct how the Judicial Council organizes and how it works are unconstitutional, says The United Methodist Church's top court. But requiring the entire court to be present to rule on the constitutionality of General Conference actions is permitted by the Book of Discipline, the council said.
On April 27, the denomination's Judicial Council responded to the 2008 General Conference's request for a declaratory decision on four petitions submitted to it. The petitions relate to recusal, conflict of interest issues, judicial conduct and the establishment of a quorum.
Issued on April 30, Decision 1096 says the General Conference can determine the number and qualifications of Judicial Council members and how they are elected. But the constitution of the church empowers the Judicial Council "to adopt its own methods of organization and procedure."
The General Conference can also set the number of members constituting a quorum and can require "that only the whole of the Judicial Council may consider and decide the constitutionality of acts of the General Conference." The council is made up of nine members, divided between clergy and laity. Twelve alternates -- six clergy and six laity -- are elected to serve if needed.
The constitution of The United Methodist Church provides a judicial system for the denomination, which includes the Judicial Council as the highest legal authority. Paragraph 56.6 of Division IV of the church's constitution gives the council the authority to set its own rules.
"Powers conferred by the constitution are to be given greater deference than powers conferred by the General Conference," the decision states. "The Judicial Council's constitutional powers may not be infringed by General Conference legislation."
The ruling specifically addresses all four petitions:
- Petition 80848 would require members of the council to recuse themselves from any deliberation where there is a conflict of interest. "From a legal standpoint," the decision says, "recusal is a discretionary decision made by a member of a tribunal by which a member makes a personal decision to refrain from participation in a matter for any reason that the member deems appropriate. &ellipsis; Recusal cannot be imposed upon the member by rule or requirement, but is solely dependant on the member's &ellipsis; own sense of fairness."
Recusal is different from disqualification, the decision adds. The power to determine whether a member should be disqualified is already within the council's methods of procedure, the council said. The petition "violates the separation of powers by infringing upon the Judicial Council's constitutional authority."
- Petition 81107 would create a "Committee on Judicial Conduct" to receive and act on complaints made against Judicial Council members related to such issues as incapacity, breach of trust, immoral conduct or other violations of the integrity of the council, and grant that committee power to sanction, suspend or dismiss members. "The General Conference cannot grant or delegate powers that it does not possess," the ruling states. "There is nothing in the constitution that reserves to the General Conference the power to sanction, suspend or dismiss members of the Judicial Council." The council said it is accountable to the General Conference through its election process and by term limitations for its individual members.
- Petition 81315 would add a conflict of interest policy and amend Paragraph 2607.2 of the 2004 Book of Discipline to direct the method of how decisions are made public and mandate that published decisions include the names of participating members of the council and how they voted on each decision. These mandates "infringe on the Judicial Council's authority" granted in Paragraphs 55-57 of the constitution, the ruling states.
- Petition 80148 would require that all nine members or alternates of the Judicial Council be present to consider any question of the constitutionality of General Conference actions. Paragraph 2608 of the 2004 Book of Discipline determines seven as the number of council members needed for a quorum. It also provides that rulings on issues related to constitutionality of General Conference actions require a "super majority" of six votes. "It follows that the General Conference likewise has the authority to require that all seats of the Judicial Council be filled whenever a constitutional issue involving an act of the General Conference is before it..."
The council cautioned that while such a requirement was constitutional, it might have unintended consequences. Emergencies such as illness "may mitigate against imposing such an inflexible rule," the council said. "Moreover, such a requirement would permit one member to remove himself or herself from the deliberations to prevent the Judicial Council from discharging its responsibilities."
The council also released a ruling on another item from the General Conference. In Memorandum 1095, the council ruled that a jurisdictional conference cannot adopt a rule that is in conflict with the Discipline. Specifically, the decision said that a jurisdictional conference rule that infringes on the right of a general conference delegate to be considered and/or elected to general and jurisdictional boards and agencies is in violation of Paragraph 705.1(b) of the 2004 Book of Discipline.
The ruling responded to a request from the South Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops for a decision "regarding the constitutionality of a rule adopted by the South Central Jurisdictional Conference limiting the right of a Jurisdictional Nominating Committee from nominating certain members of the committee for a position on a general or jurisdictional board or agency."
In response, the Judicial Council said that the rule was in conflict with Paragraph 705.1(b), which states that "each annual and missionary conference in the United States shall nominate the persons most recently elected as delegates to General Conference to the jurisdictional pool."
*Caldwell is editor of the Virginia United Methodist Advocate and covers the Judicial Council for United Methodist News Service.
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