Monday, July 21, 2014

Eyewitness report from Day 10: Walter Edgar's not so expert testimony does little for TEC's specious argument

Walter Edgar
The trial to protect the assets and properties of the Diocese of South Carolina entered its third week today and I was finally able to witness the proceedings firsthand. The experience was a bit underwhelming, but that is most likely attributable to the dullness of the day's only witness, Dr. Walter Edgar, retired professor of history at the University of South Carolina.

Most of the morning was spent arguing an objection brought by the diocesan legal team against Dr. Edgar's testimony. As a "lay witness," the professor had no background in canon law, church history, and church finances. Yet, the national church had paid him handsomely to pour over the journals of diocesan conventions from the late eighteenth century until 2010 and offer his "expert" opinion on the historical nature of the diocese's relationship with the national church. Ultimately, Judge Diane Goodstein limited the professor's testimony to summaries of his "research" of pertinent materials.

On direct examination by defendant's attorney Thomas Tisdale, Dr. Edgar offered a long and very boring lecture on the history of the relationship between the diocese and the national church, revealing nothing of particular legal relevance. The fact that the Diocese of South Carolina was once affiliated with a national body variously known as The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, The Episcopal Church in the United States of America, and The Episcopal Church is, of course, not in dispute. Nothing in Dr. Edgar's testimony did anything to bolster the specious claim that once a diocese has voluntarily affiliated with the national church, it cannot, likewise, voluntarily disaffiliate.

On cross examination from diocesan attorneys Henrietta Golding and Alan Runyan, Dr. Edgar conceded his lack of expertise in religious history and church canon law and admitted he had not considered in his "research" the possibility that the diocese had been relatively self-sustaining with minimal financial assistance from the national church through most of its history.

A good portion of Dr. Edgar's testimony focused on financial assistance given to the diocese in the years 1866-67. As an historian of the Civil War era, Dr. Edgar would certainly have recognized the need for outside aid to churches in the old Confederacy after that bloody conflict (in which a number of churches were burned to the ground) would have been great. Yet, he made no mention of such an obvious historical anomaly during his testimony. That glaring omission, along with his admitted lack of knowledge of actual diocesan finances and his imperious boast that he and his wife always made sure they worshiped in a church "that is in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury," made his testimony less than credible.

Attorneys for the national church continued to engage in dilatory tactics, failing to provide the diocesan attorneys with documentation necessary for cross-examination. The courtroom behavior of these bandits in bow ties is truly mind-boggling. One wonders if the whole strategy of the national church is simply to plan an appeal of what seems to be an inevitably unfavorable decision on grounds of incompetent counsel.

Judge Goodstein, it must be said, is a particularly interesting character. Hardly the stern taskmaster that I expected, she was a jovial and affable presence, often engaging in lighthearted banter with counsel and witness. It was clear, however, that she has every intention of following long standing precedent in matters of South Carolina law, giving the Diocese and its legal team every reason to be optimistic about the final outcome.

Here is the official diocesan press release from today's proceedings:
ST. GEORGE, SC, JULY 21, 2014 – An attorney for The Episcopal Church on Monday acknowledged that – despite TEC’s repeated claim that dioceses may not leave the denomination – there is nothing in the group’s constitution that specifically prohibits such a disassociation.

“It’s true it doesn’t say whether a diocese in the U.S. can or cannot [leave],” said Mary Kostel, attorney for TEC. “It’s arguably ambiguous.”

The comment came during the 10th day of trial in suit to prevent TEC from seizing the property of the Diocese of South Carolina and its parishes. Much of the morning was spent in a discussion between attorneys and Judge Diane S. Goodstein about the admissibility of testimony by historian Walter Edgar, a professor at the University of South Carolina.

Though Edgar was not identified as an expert witness, TEC wanted him to testify about his expertise and provide opinions on the hierarchical nature of TEC and to demonstrate that it has authority over its dioceses and parishes. But Judge Goodstein denied that he would be allowed to.

This is the second time in this trial that TEC failed to follow the rules on the use of witnesses. “When he shifts from saying ‘this is what it says,’ to ‘this is what it means’ we’ve crossed into expert testimony,” she said.

Judge Goodstein acknowledged that she understands TEC’s attorneys want to introduce the idea of a hierarchical denomination in order to pave the way for an expected appeal. However, she made clear that the claim is irrelevant to the case under South Carolina law.

“Let me be very clear that in every way the defendants [TEC attorneys] have done everything within their ability to establish the hierarchal nature of this church. I accept that,” she said. “Our courts have said we will not enforce the hierarchical decisions. We’re a neutrality state.”

The afternoon was spent with Edgar literally reading highlighted excerpts from numerous journals of the Diocese of South Carolina, showing that the Diocese participated in TEC activities and adhered to its rules while the Diocese was a member of the denomination. The diocese has never disputed that fact.

In fact, during the morning discussion before Edgar even began his testimony, Diocese of South Carolina attorney Henrietta Golding said, “If you’re a member of a club or fraternity, you abide by the laws. …There’s no relevance that the Diocese followed the Constitution and Canons. They were together at that time. There’s no significance because a party to this action followed the rules. We were members then.”

Edgar also spent some time testifying about individual financial contributions TEC had sent to the diocese and its parishes through the years. While he never mentioned a total number, after reading page after page of excerpts, it was clear that the denomination had provided several thousands of dollars.

However, when asked in cross-examination by Alan Runyan, lead attorney for the Plaintiff, Dr. Edgar testified that he had not been asked to, nor did he attempt to, see how much money the diocese had voluntarily given to TEC during the same time TEC says the Diocese received grants and loans "It could even be 900 percent more than you testified TEC has given over the same period and you do not know because you did not ask?" Runyan said.