By A S Haley, Stand Firm
Just how important is the ruling handed down yesterday in the Diocese of Quincy litigation? As a precedent binding on other courts—both in Illinois and other states—it is of little significance, because it is the opinion of a trial court, and therefore binding only on the parties to it.
But as a roadmap for other judges—both trial and appellate judges—the decision is of enormous importance. The reason is that most judges have very little time to devote to any one case. (Appellate judges by design have more time, but even they, it has been estimated, spend at most about four hours, on average, in considering any one case.)
In this instance, Judge Ortbal of the Adams County Circuit Court spent literally hundreds of hours presiding over pretrial proceedings and the trial itself, together with another hundred or more hours going patiently through the mountain of exhibits introduced at trial and the post-trial briefs of the various parties. Indeed, it is probably accurate to say that at this point, the Hon. Thomas J. Ortbal is the most knowledgeable judge in the entire United States on the history and polity of the Episcopal Church (USA).
His 21-page Findings, Opinion and Order
reflect that fact. After hearing days of opinion testimony from various church expert witnesses, Judge Ortbal faced at the outset a crucial question: given that he had determined at an earlier stage in the case that the courts of Illinois applied neutral principles of law in resolving disputes over church property, just how much “deference” was the court required to show to ECUSA, as a putatively “hierarchical” church? The first three-and-a-half pages of his decision are devoted to drawing out, from earlier U.S. Supreme Court and Illinois opinions in church property cases, the guiding rules for resolving just that question.
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