Questions arise over justice’s impartiality in Episcopal suit

This screen capture from an SCETV video of Wednesday's session shows state Supreme Court Justice Kaye Hearn as she questions one of the lawyers for the Episcopal Church.

When the ongoing lawsuit over The Episcopal Church’s local breakup saga landed before the state Supreme Court last week, several justices peppered questions at an attorney representing parishes that broke away from the national church.

Among those who spoke most was Justice Kaye G. Hearn.

Since the hearing, her relationship with The Episcopal Church and one of its parishes where she worships is raising questions about whether she should have recused herself from the case.

Hearn used to be a member of a Conway parish, St. Paul’s, that left The Episcopal Church along with Bishop Mark Lawrence and the Diocese of South Carolina in 2012. After years of arguing with the national church over Scriptural interpretations and governance powers, most parishes in the diocese joined them.

They then sued the national church to retain their properties along with the diocese’s name and identifying marks. That case landed before the state Supreme Court on Wednesday.

Attorney A.S. Haley, who blogs as the “Anglican Curmudgeon,” called Hearn’s behavior at the oral arguments “blatant bias” in a recent post.

“To this attorney, it is simply unbelievable that a sitting Justice who had long ago subscribed to these principles in public would not recuse herself from sitting in judgment on Bishop Lawrence’s case,” Haley wrote.

Worshippers at Hearn’s former parish who wanted to stay with the national church formed a new parish, St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, including Hearn and her husband who serves on the vestry, Haley wrote.

Hearn’s name also appears on an April 24 member list of The Episcopal Forum of South Carolina, which exists to “support” The Episcopal Church and its local diocese, its website says.

“This was truly a disgraceful performance and display of impropriety by one of the country’s highest sitting judges. If she does not recuse herself post-argument, there should be, at a minimum, an investigation” into whether she violated the South Carolina Code of Judicial Ethics, Haley wrote.

That code says: “A judge shall disqualify himself or herself in a proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned.” That would include if the judge has “a personal bias or prejudice” concerning the dispute or parties involved, the code reads.

However, attorneys for the Diocese of South Carolina and its parishes didn’t file a request for Hearn to recuse herself before the oral arguments were held. A spokeswoman said it would be inappropriate for her to comment on Hearn’s role.

The Supreme Court’s clerk said in an email that it would be inappropriate for Hearn to comment since the case is pending before the court.

She joined the state’s highest court in 2009, becoming the second woman to serve on it. Until then, she sat on the state Court of Appeals for 15 years, including 10 as chief judge.

The Episcopal Church in South Carolina’s attorney also declined to discuss whether Hearn should have bowed out.

“We have complete confidence in the ability of the South Carolina Supreme Court to decide this case in a just manner,” said Thomas S. Tisdale Jr., chancellor of the national church’s local diocese.