Judicial Council

Decision Number 1410


April 16, 2021


IN RE: Review of a Bishop’s Ruling on a Question of Law in the Alaska United Methodist [Missionary] Conference, concerning whether the Conference's petition to General Conference falls within the exceptions to filing deadlines set forth in ¶ 507.6 of The Book of Discipline

Digest


The Decision of Law of Bishop Elaine J.W. Stanovsky was correct at the time it was tendered.  Due to intervening developments and circumstances caused by the pandemic, the matter has been resolved and become moot.

Statement of Facts


During a special session of the Alaska United Methodist Conference, on February 22, 2020, a clergy member who was chair of the Conference Leadership Team moved that the Alaska United Methodist Conference petition the 2020 General Conference to discontinue the missionary conference status of the Conference.  The motion was approved. A lay member of the Conference, then presented in writing and read aloud a question of law in two parts regarding the meaning, application and effect of ¶ 507.6 of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 2016 [hereinafter the Discipline]. The request reads in relevant parts:

Bishop, as authorized in ¶¶51 and 2609.6, I present you with a Question of Law concerning the meaning, application, and effect of ¶507.6 of the 2016 Book of Discipline… This special session of the Alaska United Methodist Conference is being held on Saturday, 22Feb20, which is 73 days prior to the scheduled 05May20 opening session of General Conference 2020, well within the time period identified in the quoted portion of ¶507.6. We have just adopted a petition intended for General Conference 2020, and it is important for us to know how our petition will be received and processed by the Secretary of the General Conference, who has said that it is his interpretation of the exception clause of ¶507.6 that it applies only to petitions developed in regular sessions of annual conferences that are held late and therefore does not apply to petitions developed in special sessions.

My question to you then is the following:

Is a petition to General Conference, adopted by a special session of the annual conference held between 230 and 45 days of the opening of a General Conference, legal under the provisions of BOD ¶¶ 51, 369.6, 507.5&.6 and 2609.6?

Further, does the exception clause of ¶507.6 quoted above mean that only petitions originating in a regular session of an annual conference that is held between 230 and 45 days of the opening of a General Conference must be received by the Secretary of the General Conference as timely petitions and presented to the General Conference for action…and that a petition developed in a special session of an annual conference such as ours is considered a late petition and may or may not be received by the Secretary of the General Conference and processed or not processed as determined by the Committee on Reference in consultation with the Secretary of the General Conference?

On March 16, 2020, Bishop Elaine J.W. Stanovsky issued her decision of law, which reads in relevant parts:

Ruling [on the first question]

Paragraph 51 establishes the constitutional duty of a bishop presiding over an annual conference “to decide all questions of law coming before the bishop in the regular business of a session.” The question was properly put before the bishop in writing and recorded in the journal of the conference.

Paragraph 369.6 prescribes the conditions for holding a special session of the annual conference. The question of law was presented at a special session of an annual conference, called in compliance with the conditions set forth.

Paragraph 507.5 establishes the deadline and conditions for submitting petitions to General Conference.

Paragraph 507.6 states that, “Exceptions to the time limitations shall be granted for petitions originating from an annual conference session held between 230 and 45 days prior to the opening session of the General Conference.” It does not specify that petitions originating from a special session of an annual conference should be treated differently than those originating from a regular session.

No provision in the Book of Discipline differentiates between the legality, authority or treatment of actions taken by an annual conference in a regular session of an annual conference and those taken in a special session. There is no disciplinary foundation for treating a petition originating from a special session of an annual conference differently than one originating from a regular session of an annual conference.

A petition adopted by a special session of an annual conference meeting between 230 and 45 days prior to the opening session of the general conference is legal under the exception to time limitations provided in ¶507.6.

Ruling [on the second question]

A petition to General Conference originating at a special session of an annual conference held between 230 and 45 days prior to the opening session of the General Conference shall be granted an exception to the time limitations as provided in ¶507.6. Its consideration by the General Conference is not subject to the discretion of the Committee on Reference. Such a petition shall be given the same right of consideration by the general conference as any petition originating at a regular session of an annual conference.

The Judicial Council takes notice of the following material facts in this case: In early March 2020, as the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic and the United States and other Western countries imposed international travel bans, it became increasingly clear that the General Conference, scheduled for May 5-15, could not proceed as planned. On March 18, 2020, the Executive Committee of the Commission on the General Conference released a statement in which it announced that the General Conference would be postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic [https://www.umc.org/en/content/united-methodist-general-conference-to-be-postponed]. In a second press release of May 26, 2020, the Commission notified the public that the quadrennial legislative event would take place August 29 – September 7, 2021, at the Minneapolis Convention Center in Minneapolis [https://www.resourceumc.org/en/content/commission-sets-dates-for-postponed-general-conference-will-explore-new-uses-of-technology].  Then, in a third press release of February 25, 2021, the Commission decided to further postpone the General Conference until August 29 – September 6, 2022, in Minneapolis, Minnesota [https://www.resourceumc.org/en/content/general-conference-postponed-to-2022].

Jurisdiction


The Judicial Council has jurisdiction pursuant to ¶ 2609.6 of the 2016 Book of Discipline.

Analysis and Rationale


The record shows that, during the special session of the Alaska Conference, the requester, presiding bishop, and conference members acted in anticipation that the General Conference would take place May 5-15, 2020 as originally scheduled.

At the time it was tendered, the bishop’s Decision of Law was correct. Paragraph 507.6 sets forth the criteria for submitting petitions to the General Conference. The portion of the criteria that describes exceptions, states that the time limitations shall be granted for petitions originating from an annual conference session held between 230 and 45 days prior to the opening session of the General Conference and for other petitions at the discretion of the Committee on Reference. Special sessions of annual conferences are authorized by the Discipline and have only such powers as stated in the call. ¶ 369.6. The bishop was correct in ruling that “[n]o provision in the Book of Discipline differentiates between the legality, authority or treatment of actions taken by an annual conference in a regular session of an annual conference and those taken in a special session.” The special session of the Alaska Missionary Conference took place on February 22, 2020, which was 73 days prior to the opening session of the 2020 General Conference scheduled for May 5, 2020, and well within the time period stipulated in ¶ 507.6. 

However, due to developments and circumstances intervening since that time, the issues presented have been resolved. In his Reply Brief dated January 5, 2021, the Secretary of the General Conference made the following statement:

In essence, the relief requested by Mr. Brooks on page 8 of his Opening Brief has already been provided. The petition submitted by the Alaska Missionary Annual Conference has been received and found to be valid according to formatting and other requirements, subject to final editing.  [Reply Brief of Rev. Gary Graves, p. 3.]

The Secretary’s statement and the postponement of the 2020 session of General Conference effectively eliminated the need for invoking the exception under ¶ 507.6. We, therefore, declare this matter moot.

Decision


The Decision of Law of Bishop Elaine J.W. Stanovsky was correct at the time it was tendered. Due to intervening developments and circumstances 

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions


We respectfully concur that the Bishop’s ruling was correct at the time it was made, but we dissent in the conclusion that it is now moot. When the questions concerning a matter of law were asked on February 22, 2020, General Conference was still scheduled for May 5-15, 2020, as such the questions asked of the Bishop were not moot. The Bishop’s rationale and application of the relevant Disciplinary provisions herein are accurate and thus the Bishop’s rulings are affirmed. The Bishop’s rulings should be affirmed without equivocation.

Kabamba Kiboko
Beth Capen