Friday, June 21, 2013

No Court of Appeals for the PCA?

This past week the PCA held its 41st General Assembly in Greenville, South Carolina. Many substantive issues were discussed, to be sure. But one issue that many were awaiting with bated breath was to see how the GA would deal with the Peter Leithart case. While the merits of this case were never discussed, we did discover, to the chagrin of many, that the GA has no mechanism in place for dealing with SJC decisions after they have been announced.

Two examples demonstrate this. First, TE Andrew Barnes attempted to object to a decision made by the SJC, but his objection was ruled out of order on the basis that he was not a member of the SJC. He was then told that only members of the SJC can object to SJC rulings. TE Barnes then responded that he is a member of the General Assembly and pointed out that the SJC is a commission of the General Assembly, and as such he should have standing to be able to object. He was again told that this is not the case by the Stated Clerk, Roy Taylor.

A second example of this is that Overtures 19 and 23 were ruled out of order by the moderator, and evidently for good reason: The PCA has no way for what is supposed to be the final court (the General Assembly) to question the ruling of the SJC. These overtures were doomed from the beginning, although they do draw attention to the presence of major dissatisfaction within the PCA with how the case was handled. Many would like for this case to be retried for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that the prosecutor, by his own admission, was persuaded of the truth claims of the Roman Catholic Church while trying this case. Unfortunately, this meant that the merits of the Leithart case were not even heard by the General Assembly.

The actions of the 41st GA did, however, resulted in some misplaced celebrations:
Of course, this is nothing close to an exoneration in any meaningful sense. This would be a curious form of exoneration; to have the case never brought before the GA on a few technicalities is hardly what most people would consider exonerated. The General Assembly, to our imperfect memories, never even mentioned the name "Leithart." Nobody at GA heard the complaints or even had an opportunity to publicly discuss the merits of the case. And as it stands, it looks like that may never happen.

Josh Walker and Adam Parker

7 comments:

  1. The reason it was ruled out order was because he said I was not a member of the "court" not SJC. There are 3 courts of our church and the SJC isn't one of them...that was my point and why BCO 45-4 does apply. The Asst. Parliamentarians agreed.

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  2. Andrew,

    I think you were right to object and that your position is inline with the rules for GA. But the Stated Clerk did say, please correct me if I am wrong, that only someone from the SJC can object to the ruling of the SJC. I disagree with his opinion, but I am representing his opinion correctly?

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  3. Josh,

    Would you be willing to let the Aquila Report run your article in full? We would include a short bio and a link to your original post.

    Thanks,
    Rachel Miller
    News Editor
    The Aquila Report

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  4. Rachel,

    Sure. That would be nice to have our post on the Aquila Report. The post was written by both Adam Parker and myself, so he is more than able to help you. If you need anything from me, please let me know.

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  5. TE Barnes then responded that he is a member of the General Assembly and pointed out that the SJC is a commission of the General Assembly, and as such he should have standing to be able to object.

    Maybe I am wrong, but I remember reading Dabney - or somebody else to the same end - that there are quorums for the respective ongoing committees in the church, but anytime a big or potentially divisive issue was to be debated and decided on, any member of the larger court was free to attend and vote.
    Further, in the classic sense I always understood that a commission is enabled to carry out the business of the court, while a committee only advises.
    In short a standing judicial commission is contrary to P&R principles of accountability and separation/dispersal of power, i.e. unpresbyterian

    thanks,
    Bob S

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  6. What you witnessed was the successful attempt to squelch dissent--something which is not loving, nor is it wise, since being able to spread an opposing view on the record is necessary as a safety valve in blowing off steam.

    John White mentioned that the present SJC system was approved in 1996 by a vote of 791-17. I was one of those seventeen.

    The Ad Interim's opinion was that "as BCO Chapter 45 is now worded, dissents, protests and objections would not be permitted against an SJC decision by commissioners of the General Assembly to which an SJC decision is announced, but would be permitted if a case is referred to the General Assembly for final action through the minority decision procedure" (Minutes, pp. 75-76).

    However, as Dr. Roy Taylor pointed out, the use of filing a dissenting view had been done in the past. For example, in 2000, both a protest and an objection were lodged with the General Assembly on two separate cases (Minutes, pp. 270ff).

    The Ad Interim Committee's opinion notwithstanding to the contrary, the GA, on numerous occasions, has allowed dissent to be recorded. Dr. Coffin argued that the provision of BCO 45-5 did not have the situation in view under BCO 15-5 (regarding the SJC). But, in point of fact, the actual wording does, prima facie, allow for the recording of an objection, if the matter is viewed as something on which the member of the court did not have the right to vote.

    However, I would argue that, in point of fact, even the recording of the SJC report is an action by the General Assembly, which the GA could, theoretically, refuse to do. Notice the wording of BCO 15-4 and 15-5. In the former, we read that "each subsequent Assembly shall declare the Standing Judicial Commission as a whole to be its commission." That means that the SJC's actions in March 2013 were the actions of the 40th GA (June 2012), not the 41st GA. Technically, therefore, when 45-5 says that the SJC decisions "shall be entered on the minutes of the General Assembly", that means that they should be entered on the minutes of the General Assembly which approved the SJC as its commission. That would mean, of course, that the minutes of the GA might not be printed for awhile; or, they could be printed, but with the notice that the actions of the SJC will be published later. Furthermore, notice the next phrase, which confirms this understanding: "and shall be reported by the Stated Clerk to the next General Assembly." Now, in practice, instead of the previous GA, the decisions of the SJC are spread on the subsequent GA. However, given this wording, the implication is that though the Stated Clerk may "report" the SJC decisions at that next Assembly, what the Assembly does with that report is up to it. Therefore, even the recording of the SJC report is not a necessary or automatic or mandated action, which means that the decision to record that report may be protested or dissented from (BCO 45-1).

    For Christ's crown and covenant,
    Frank J. Smith, Ph.D., D.D.
    President, Young American Leaders Association Missionary Training School, Los Angeles, California
    Instructor of Biblical Studies, Belhaven University--Atlanta, Atlanta, Georgia
    Pastor, Northminster Reformed Presbyterian Church (RPCNA), Suwanee, Georgia

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  7. Let me also note that there is another way to get at this matter, in that a subsequent GA can condemn the action (that is, its action via the SJC) of a previous GA. Theoretically, since the action of the SJC in March 2013 was that of the 40th GA, the 41st GA could have condemned its action. This principle has been utilized all throughout Presbyterian history. Of course, I am certain that the "experts" who sit on the dais would rule such a matter out of order--at which point they would be demonstrating a number of things, not least of which is their ignorance of Presbyterianism. However, that would at least be a way by which to get at the matter. In point of fact, presbyteries could overture the 2014 GA (the 42nd GA) to condemn the action of the 40th GA.

    As for the parliamentary tricks used to rule out of order the overtures on a couple of cases--the Stated Clerk is correct that a substitute (as in a minority report) is a subsidiary motion, and if the original motion disappears, then the substitute is out of order. However, there was no motion on the floor which the chair ruled out of order! Instead, the chair ruled the overture out of order, even though there was no motion on the floor at that time to adopt the overture. Now, to be sure, if the minority had been given opportunity to present its report, the same thing would have been ruled. Nevertheless, the chair was wrong to rule as he did when the Overtures Committee chairman reported their recommendation.

    Apart from those parliamentary technicalities, please note that BCO 15-5 does provide that the GA "may direct the Standing Judicial Commission to retry a case if upon the review of its minutes exceptions are taken with respect to that case." Therefore, the overtures were well within the bounds to ask for a review of the minutes and thus to force a retrying of the matters.

    I don't have a lot of glee in making these points. Since I left the PCA nine years ago, I have not often followed the proceedings of the General Assembly. However, I just happened to watch the live stream on Thursday for a couple of hours when these matters came up. As one who was privileged to be the first ministerial candidate of the PCA and to have written her first history, I have great sadness as I witness what is going on.

    For Christ's crown and covenant,
    Frank J. Smith, Ph.D., D.D.
    President, Young American Leaders Association Missionary Training School, Los Angeles, California
    Instructor of Biblical Studies, Belhaven University--Atlanta, Atlanta, Georgia
    Pastor, Northminster Reformed Presbyterian Church (RPCNA), Suwanee, Georgia



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