Notes from Anglican/Episcopal church trial


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Posted Online: May 10, 2013, 2:50 am
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Editor's note: A two-week trial between the Anglican Diocese of Quincy and The Episcopal Church (TEC) recently took place in the Adams County Courthouse in Quincy, Ill. Mike Romkey, associate managing editor of The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus, spent a day in the courtroom and compiled notes about the case, some of which follow:

Much has been written about the disagreement between the two parties, and how the Anglican churches in western Illinois voted in 2008 to sever ties with the Episcopal Church in reaction to what it regarded as TEC's increasingly liberal interpretation of scripture.

This trial will determine who owns the Anglican Diocese of Quincy's churches and endowments -- the local Anglicans or TEC.

The trial is taking place before Associate Circuit Judge Thomas J. Ortbal, a 1975 graduate of Quincy College and a 1978 graduate of Marshall Law School, who has been on the bench since 2001.

Judge Ortbal is a trim, balding man in his 50s with a neatly trimmed mustache and goatee. He sits at the bench with an alert and engaged manner, following proceedings intently. He seems to enjoy the intellectual experience of hearing the two sides debate sticky points of law that crop up during the trial.

The case is being heard in Courtroom 2D, the room where the Adams County Board meets.

Lawyers sat at two tables facing the platform where the judge sits, along with the witness and court reporter on one side and a clerk and bailiff on the other.

No Quincy clergy were present in court.

Though he is not physically large, TEC's principal attorney, David Booth Beers' figure looms large in the cases between TEC and dioceses and churches that have left. About 5-foot-5, Beers appears to be somewhere in his 70s. During recesses, he walks briskly down the hall, leaning purposefully forward at the waist with hands clasped behind.

Beers is of counsel with Goodwin Procter LLP, an 850-lawyer firm with offices in Washington, San Francisco, San Diego, New York City, Los Angeles, London, Hong Kong and elsewhere.

TEC's critics say its legal strategy is to "litigate until they capitulate." Regardless of whether that is true, it was evident in court Tuesday that Beers is a fierce litigator. The same could be said about the Quincy lawyers, who showed no signs Beers intimidated them.

Nothing happened in court that day without a flurry of paper amongst the lawyers, witness and judge. Each side must have put in a staggering number of hours collecting, collating and analyzing the material.

Beers spent timequestioning his expert witness,Bruce Mullin, Ph.D. Mullin teaches church history at General Theological Seminaryin New York City, a seminary accredited by the Episcopal Church. He has a doctorate inchurch history from Yale.

Mullin's testimony centered on a central question: Is the Episcopal Church a hierarchalchurch? If it is, TEC's argument runs, individuals are free to leave, but the constituentorganizational parts -- parishes or, in the case of this trial, a diocese -- may not.

The matter is important because upon it hinges the issue of who owns the churches,endowments and other property in Quincy -- the diocese and its local parishes, or TECin trust for the continuing Episcopalians in this part of the state.

During later questioning by Quincy representative Alan Runyan, a lawyer from the Diocese of South Carolina, Mullin confirmed he had been paid$900,000 for testimony going back to 2007, adding that he has anarrangement to be paid $15,000 per month to even out the payments.

One question that does not come up in court Tuesday, and may or may not play a partin this trial though it has come up elsewhere, is how TEC has come to hold a trustinterest in deeds to land purchased by individual churches, and buildings parishes havebuilt and maintained without TEC's financial assistance. The assumption on TEC's partseems to be A) this is a hierarchal church, therefore B) you may leave, but the propertystays.

The issue would be easier to decide if language in the TEC constitution explicitly statedthat it is a hierarchal church with parish and diocese property held in trust for thenational church. But it does not.

After all the testimony, it will be up to Judge Ortbal to sift through evidence and write a decision. It does not appear it will be an easy case to call. The two sides are diametrically opposed in their positions, and each time the one side introduces an opinion represented to be factual, true and probative, the other side introduces evidence to contradict it or throw it into doubt.

As Judge Ortbal said at one point with certain resignation while ruling on an objection, "This trial has been nothing but opinions."










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