Decision Number 134
Interpretation of Amendment to Paragraph 1924 of the 1952 Discipline Providing a Ritual for Admission on Trial
The words "formal vote of the Conference" as used in Paragraph 1924 of the 1952 Discipline, and in the amendment thereto made by the General Conference of 1956 were intended to mean the formal vote of the ministers of the Conference entitled to vote under the Constitution on the question before the Conference.
Statement of Facts
The President of the Judicial Council on June 20, 1956, received the following copy of a resolution from Rev. Mr. John V. Leach:
"WHEREAS, paragraph 1924 of the 1952 Discipline of The Methodist Church was amended by the 1956 General Conference to include a ritual for 'Admission on Trial,' and
"WHEREAS, the said ritual calls for a vote of the entire membership of the Annual Conference on the acceptability of candidates for admission on trial, and
"WHEREAS, The Constitution of The Methodist Church, paragraph 22, Article 11, specifically states that 'the lay members (of the Annual Conference) may not vote on matters of ordination, character and conference relations of ministers.'
"THEREFORE, the South Dakota Annual Conference of The Methodist Church respectfully requests the Judicial Council to rule on the query whether the said amendment to the Discipline is in contravention of the Constitution of The Methodist Church.
"Done at Huron, South Dakota, this eighth day of June, 1956.
(signed) Edwin Edgar Voight Bishop (signed) John V. Leach Secretary"
The Judicial Council takes jurisdiction of the question herein presented under Paragraph 914 (8) of the 1952 Discipline.
Analysis and Rationale
While the request of the South Dakota Annual Conference asks for a ruling as to whether or not the ritual for "Admission On Trial" as approved by the General Conference of 1956 contravenes the Constitution of The Methodist Church, the import of the query indicates that the concern is in the interpretation of the phrase "after this the formal vote of the Conference on admitting the candidates to membership on trial shall be taken." (See 1956 Daily Christian Advocate, page 437.)
Attention is called to the fact that in the petition the petitioner states "the said ritual calls for a vote of the entire membership of the Annual Conference." This statement is in error.
The language of the report adopted by the General Conference, as indicated above, reveals that the committee reporting and the General Conference adopting this ritual employed the same language used in paragraph 1924 of the 1952 Discipline relating to the ritual "for the admission of candidates to full membership in an Annual Conference."
It is the opinion of this Judicial Council, and we so hold, that there is no constitutional question involved in the question submitted to us as assumed by the petitioner; rather, it is our opinion that the only question presented by the petitioner involves an interpretation of the words "formal vote of the Conference." Therefore, we are of the opinion, and so hold, that the only thing necessary to a determination of this matter is to give a judicial interpretation of the intended meaning of the words quoted above. In this connection we point out that in various other places in the Discipline similar words are used. (See Paragraphs 367, 369, 377 of the 1952 Discipline.)
It is apparent, when the paragraphs of the Discipline referred to in this petition and the other paragraphs referred to by numbers above are read in connection with the constitutional provisions, that it was the intention of the General Conference in using such words to refer to that vote which could constitutionally be taken in such instances, namely, the vote of the ministerial members only of the Annual Conference.
It is, therefore, the decision of the Judicial Council that in the 1956 Amendment to Paragraph 1924 of the 1952 Discipline when reference is made to "the formal vote of the Conference" this, in effect, means the formal vote of the ministerial members of the Annual Conference who may be entitled to vote under the constitution on the question before the Conference.
October 24, 1956
Concur In Part and Dissent In Part
Respectfully I must disagree with the majority of my brethren as to the Judicial Council's jurisdiction to determine the query submitted to us by the South Dakota Annual Conference. The majority say the "import of the query" is not the constitutionality of the General Conference action.
That seems to me to fly in the face of the plain language of the South Dakota Annual Conference resolution, where, after referring to Paragraph 22, Article II of the Constitution of The Methodist Church we are requested "to rule on the query whether the said amendment is in contravention of the Constitution of The Methodist Church." I do not believe that we should require extreme precision of expression for presentation of questions to us, but when one is clearly expressed I do not believe that we should say it is other than it says it is. Hence, the resolution to me raises a constitutional question. The first point for decision, then, is our jurisdiction.
Our only express right to rule on the constitutionality of acts of the General Conference is found in Division Four, Paragraph 43, Article II, of the Constitution and Paragraph 904.1 of the Discipline enacted pursuant thereto. The relevant language in each is:
"* * * determine the constitutionality of any act of the General Conference upon an appeal of a majority of the Council of Bishops, or one-fifth of the members of the General Conference * * *"
We unanimously held in Decision Number 37 that we had no jurisdiction to pass on the constitutionality of a General Conference Act at the initiative of an Annual Conference under the Constitutional provision quoted above or under Paragraph 914 of the 1944 Discipline. I am aware that the General Conference in 1952 amended that Paragraph 914 by listing the bodies that could seek a "declaratory decision" and that an Annual Conference is one of the bodies listed. Our former Decision was based squarely on "the Constitution, Paragraph 43, Article II, Section I," and only in a passing manner did it mention there was an authority in the then Paragraph 914 for such appeals from the Annual Conference. Too, no amendment was made as to the types of questions on which such decisions could be sought. Those were in the 1944 and the 1952 Discipline.
"When the General Conference shall have passed any act or legislation that appears to be subject to more than one interpretation, or when any paragraph or paragraphs of the Discipline seem to be of doubtful meaning, or application, the Judicial Council, * * * shall have jurisdiction to make a ruling in the nature of a declaratory decision as to the meaning, application, and effect of such act, legislation or paragraph or paragraphs of the Discipline***"
For these reasons, our Decision Number 37 is as valid now as when handed down and should be followed.
Apart from our previous decision its conclusion seems to me to be the only proper one now. Paragraph 915 nowhere uses the word "constitutionality" where as Paragraphs 904 and 905 do with reference to our having such jurisdiction. The key jurisdictional granting language of Paragraph 914 is "subject to more than one interpretation" and "of doubtful meaning or application," and that rather clearly seems to me to only contemplate decisions on the meaning of duplications or ambiguous legislation.
In arriving at a proper construction of Paragraph 914 we must keep before us that the Paragraph itself requires the Judicial Council to "* * * determine from the facts in connection with each such petition whether or not it has jurisdiction to hear and determine the same." That caveat indicates that we are to examine carefully the jurisdictional aspect of any petition seeking a declaratory decision and seems to negate our implying jurisdiction.
In addition, constitutional questions should not be lightly raised or lightly decided because of their far-reaching effect and importance. Judicial bodies generally do not decide them unless absolutely necessary, and do not, and should not, where their jurisdiction to do so is created by legislation, imply that power. I cannot believe the 1952 General Conference intended us to entertain constitutional questions on the petition of any of the numerous bodies listed in Paragraph 914, particularly when it did not expressly say so. As a practical matter, if we did accept such petitions from the first seven groups enumerated in Paragraph 914, let alone each Annual Conference, either this Council's personnel would have to be greatly expanded or its decisions greatly delayed.
In writing this I realize the Annual Conference is "the basic body in the church" and as such has many rights. It does not, though, have rights that by the Constitution are delegated to the General Conference. By Division Two, Section I, Article IV 7 of the Constitution the General Conference has the power "To provide a judicial System and a method of judicial procedure for the church * * *" It follows that in construing the disciplinary provisions here involved an Annual Conference has the same status as any other body in the church listed.
For the reasons above I am of the opinion the Judicial Council does not have the jurisdiction to determine the constitutionality of an action of the General Conference at the request of an Annual Conference.
Donald A. Odell and A. Wesley Pugh concur in this Dissenting Opinion.