While RONR acknowledges that “Each society decides for itself the meaning of its bylaws,” the next sentence gives an important qualification: “When the meaning is clear, however, the society, even by a unanimous vote, cannot change that meaning except by amending its bylaws” (RONR [12th ed.] 56:68). I have argued in this article that the meaning of our rules is clear, so that the only way to forbid a minority from Committee on Constitutional Business (CCB) from presenting a minority report would be to amend the RAO. Short of such an amendment, the General Assembly must permit such minority reports in the future.
At the 49th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the Committee on Constitutional Business (CCB) presented its annual report, which included the results of its review of the minutes of the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC), according to the PCA’s Rules of Assembly Operations (RAO):
The minutes, but not the judicial cases, decisions, or reports, of the Standing Judicial Commission shall be reviewed annually by the Committee on Constitutional Business. The minutes shall be examined for conformity to the “Operating Manual for Standing Judicial Commission” and RAO 17, violations of which shall be reported as “exceptions” as defined in RAO 14-11.d.(2). With respect to this examination, the Committee on Constitutional Business shall report directly to the General Assembly. If exceptions are taken with respect to a case, the Assembly may find this a ground to direct the Standing Judicial Commission to retry the case. (RAO 17-1)
This year, two members of CCB issued a minority report, arguing that they differed from the majority by finding exceptions with respect to the SJC’s handling of Speck v. Missouri Presbytery. The Moderator ruled that this minority report should neither be heard nor moved as a substitute for the Committee’s report, and, upon appeal, the General Assembly narrowly sustained the Moderator’s ruling by a vote of 970-856.
In this article, I will explore the details of the parliamentary rules concerning minority reports to argue that, in my opinion, this ruling was in error. In a future article, I will argue why maintaining this procedure is so important for the health of the PCA.
I want to be clear at the outset that I am not interested in re-litigating the case in question, Speck v. Missouri Presbytery. That decision stands as the “the final decision of the General Assembly…to which there may be no complaint or appeal” (BCO 15-5). Thus, it is important to set aside the specific issues that this minority within CCB was trying to address from the general principle of whether any minority within CCB has the right to submit a minority report. I will argue that minorities of the CCB do have this right, and that future General Assemblies should allow them to do so.
Furthermore, I do not write this with any disrespect for past or future members of CCB, nor the Moderator of the 49th General Assembly. These are fathers and brothers whom I highly esteem, even though I may disagree with them here. Again, I am writing less with an eye to the past, and more with an eye toward preparing the way for future minority reports that may come from within CCB.
Accordingly, I will first explain the procedure for offering minority reports, and the implications of that procedure for CCB’s review of SJC minutes. Then, I will consider various objections that have been made against considering a minority report from CCB, comparing them to the binding principles that guide us in how we should interpret our rules.
What are Minority Reports?
First, let us briefly consider what minority reports are, and what they may accomplish. While our RAO includes a few relevant rules detailing the function of minority reports in the General Assembly of the PCA, the foundational rules for minority reports are in Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised (RONR; 12th ed.) 51:64–71. Robert’s Rules defines a minority report as “the presentation of an expression of views in the name of a group of committee members not concurring with the committee report” (RONR [12th ed.] 51:64).
Minority Reports for Recommendations
Often, but not always, minority reports offer differing views regarding proposed recommendations in a committee’s report. In such cases, the minority can “(a) recommend rejection of the resolution [i.e., recommendation]; (b) recommend amendment of it; or (c) recommend adoption of some other suitable motion designed to dispose of the resolution appropriately” (RONR [12th ed.] 51:67).
The vast majority of minority reports dealt with during the proceedings of General Assemblies (e.g., from the Overtures Committee) deal with minority recommendations in this fashion.
Minority Reports for Information Only
Other minority reports, however, address proposed recommendations. In these cases, minority reports do not offer differing recommendations, but only different information: “If the committee report is for information only, the views of the minority may be similarly constructed [to the committee report] or may conclude with a motion” (RONR [12th ed.] 51:68).
Two paragraphs later, this concluding motion is clarified as a motion to substitute the minority in place of the committee report: “When a minority report is presented, it is for information, and it cannot be acted upon except by a motion to substitute it for the committee report.” (RONR [12th ed.] 51:70). If such a motion to substitute were adopted, the minority report would become the committee report.
If both the committee report and the minority report are for information only, what would the point be in substituting the minority report for the committee report?
Minority Reports from CCB
While there may be a number of reasons in different organizations for this procedure, the ability for a minority on CCB to move its report as a substitute for the Committee’s report is an important procedure. Within CCB’s review of SJC minutes, a minority may seek to present a minority report if the minority finds procedural errors in SJC’s handling of a case where the majority of the Committee does not. Or, vice versa, the minority may believe that the SJC’s handling of a case was free from error if the majority of the Committee believed that there were errors.
The importance of this procedure hinges on the fact that the General Assembly may only direct the SJC to retry a case after the CCB report determines that there were procedural errors in the case (BCO 15-5.a; RAO 17-1). Thus, the CCB report is the mechanism that permits a motion from the floor of the General Assembly to direct the SJC to retry a case. While the report itself is for information only, and without recommendations, the Assembly’s ability to make a motion to retry a case requires the presence of specific information that report: “If exceptions are taken with respect to a case, the Assembly may find this a ground to direct the Standing Judicial Commission to retry the case” (RAO 17-1).
So, at the 49th General Assembly, a minority believed that there were errors in the SJC’s handling of a case. If that minority report had been permitted to be heard (as it should have, in my opinion), then the first question before the General Assembly would have been whether to substitute that minority report as the report of the committee (RONR [12th ed.] 51:70; RAO 19-2).
Subsequently, if the first motion to substitute the minority report as the committee report had been adopted, then a second question would have become permissible: namely, it would have been in order then (and only then) for someone from the floor at the General Assembly to move to direct the SJC to retry the case in question. If the first motion to substitute the minority report for the committee report had been defeated, then the second motion to direct the SJC to retry the case would not have been in order.
Regardless of what may have happened during these first or second motions, the minority report itself should have been presented. While we will deal more thoroughly with the importance of this procedure in the next article, two brief comments will suffice for the moment. First, this procedure of minority reports protects the authority of the General Assembly over its own committees by giving the Assembly the final say as to which version to receive as the report of a given committee. Second, this procedure of minority reports preserves the only check of accountability that the General Assembly has reserved to itself (BCO 15-5.a) over the otherwise carte blanche judicial authority delegated to the SJC. Overall, minority reports protect the General Assembly from being handcuffed by a bare majority of CCB in the execution of this constitutional oversight over SJC.
Next, we will examine the arguments that were presented against the minority report’s consideration in light of the PCA’s binding principles for interpreting our rules.
The PCA’s Parliamentary Rules Require Minority Reports from CCB to be Heard
The parliamentary rules of the PCA clearly require minority reports to be heard. While many of the rules for dealing with minority reports are found in RONR (see above), one of the biggest differences between RONR and the RAO is that RONR requires the permission of the Assembly by majority vote before hearing a minority report (RONR [12th ed.] 51:69). Our RAO (which supersedes RONR), however, grants this permission to all minority reports when it states that a minority “shall” be permitted to have the privilege of presenting:
When a minority of a committee wishes to present a minority report, the member reporting for the minority shall have the privilege of presenting the minority report and moving it as a substitute for the portion of the majority report affected. (RAO 19-2)
CCB member RE Matt Fender made reference to this provision when he attempted to move the minority report as a substitute for CCB’s report, observing that RAO 19-2 does not limit which committees are entitled to issue a minority report. When in conflict, particular rules apply rather than general rules (RONR [12th ed.] 3:2), and without a particular rule that excludes CCB from presenting minority reports, the general rule in RAO 19-2 applies.