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What is ... the Judicial Council?

Video Script:

This is a quick overview of the Judicial Council and how it serves The United Methodist Church.

There are three main bodies that govern The United Methodist Church: The General Conference, which is the legislative body, The Council of Bishops, which provides spiritual leadership for the entire church, and the Judicial Council. The Judicial Council is the highest court of the church. It determines the constitutionality and legality of acts or proposed acts of the General, jurisdictional, central and annual conferences based on the church’s constitution and other parts of The Book of Discipline. They also review all decisions of law made by the bishops during their annual conferences.

About the Judicial Council

The Judicial Council is made up of nine members who are elected during regular sessions of General Conference. All of the Judicial Council members and alternates are volunteers who are United Methodists and active in their local churches and other parts of the connection. The Council more and more reflects the diversity of the global church. The 2017-2020 Council has the first president from a central conference.

Four clergy and four laity always serve on the Judicial Council, with the ninth seat alternating between clergy and laity. Six lay and six clergy alternates are also elected to serve in case of vacancies on the council. A term is 8 years and members can serve two successive terms. However, a member who has served 16 years must sit out for at least four years before standing for another election. Each General Conference elects the number of members whose terms expire at that session. The Council of Bishops submits nominees; General Conference delegates can make additional nominations. Members sometimes have a legal background; several active and retired judges have served.   

What are the council sessions like?

The Judicial Council meets for a spring and a fall session each year. Their docket — the items to be ruled on — regularly includes reviews of all decisions of law made by bishops, matters which have been appealed to them and requests for declaratory decisions. In General Conference years, the Council meets before and during the session to be available to review and rule on requests for declaratory decisions on the constitutionality of the Conference’s actions.

Although there are sometimes open hearings before the Judicial Council, deliberations of the council are closed. The Judicial Council sets its own rules and procedures and elects its own president, vice-president and secretary.

Who can submit petitions?

The Council of Bishops, as well as annual, jurisdictional, central and general conferences can submit a petition for a declaratory decision to the Judicial Council. At issue is the meaning, constitutionality or legality of some legislation or action of the General Conference or some other body. These requests are reviewed, and a docket is created for each session. The docket may also include reviews of decisions of central conference or jurisdictional committees on appeals as well as reviews of bishops’ rulings of law. The docket is then posted on the Judicial Council’s website.

What happens after a ruling?

After a ruling is made on questions of Church law, appropriate parties are notified and the decision is published online. An affirmative vote of at least 6 members shall be necessary to declare any act of the General Conference unconstitutional. When the Judicial Council declares any provision unconstitutional, the Book of Discipline is revised. All decisions are final. However, the Judicial Council can accept requests to reconsider a prior decision.


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