The General Assembly retained one critical aspect of control over its judicial affairs by appointing CCB to review SJC’s minutes and report any possible exceptions, so that the General Assembly may direct SJC to retry cases where exceptions may arise. Within our procedural rules, the Assembly also retains the right to hear a minority report from CCB, and to substitute that minority report for the committee’s report…The General Assembly has delegated tremendous power to the SJC, and absent the ability of CCB to conduct a robust review of the SJC’s minutes — including the presentation of minority views to the Assembly — the SJC could violate its rules, leaving the parties to a case with no recourse.
In my last article, I detailed the parliamentary rules which require minority reports from the Committee on Constitutional Business (CCB) the right to be presented to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) for consideration. Further, I showed how our parliamentary rules for handling such minority reports establish a process for the Assembly to substitute the minority report from CCB’s (majority) committee report.
This process is important, because it gives the Assembly its full freedom to oversee the procedural accuracy of the Standing Judicial Commission’s (SJC) business. If the final CCB report — whether the original committee report, or a substituted minority report — discovers procedural errors in the operations of the SJC, our Book of Church Order (BCO) enables the Assembly to redress any errors by directing the SJC to retry a case if the Assembly judges such a step to be necessary for justice to be realized in the proceedings of church courts.
In this article, I lay out three reasons for why it is important for the PCA’s General Assembly to protect this procedure within the Church’s polity.
- The General Assembly has Retained Oversight over the SJC by the Review of the SJC’s Minutes
We must remember that the General Assembly has delegated to the SJC nearly absolute authority to conclude judicial appeals and complaints that arise from the Presbyteries. Unlike judicial commissions designated at the presbytery level, the General Assembly has not reserved to itself the right of approving or disapproving the decisions of the SJC (BCO 15-3, 5).
Nevertheless, the Assembly has retained one crucial aspect of direct control over the SJC: the annual review of SJC’s minutes through CCB (BCO 15-5.a; RAO 17-1). As some noted during floor debate at the 49th General Assembly, the review of the SJC’s minutes is very different from the work of the Committee on the Review of Presbytery Records (RPR). Our polity tasks RPR with reviewing the minutes of the PCA’s 88 presbyteries as one feature of the Assembly’s proactive work of “General Review and Control” of the lower courts of the presbyteries (BCO 40; RAO 16-1). Thus, RPR brings recommendations that the Assembly must approve.
The annual review of the SJC’s minutes, however, is not the proactive review of the proceedings of a lower court. Instead, it is a reactive identification of any issues (within a very limited scope) that the General Assembly then may cite as grounds for directing the SJC to retry a case (RAO 14-11.d.(2); 17-1). The report of CCB is non-binding, advisory, and for information only; however, without a report from CCB identifying possible exceptions in the SJC minutes (whether in the committee report, or in a substituted minority report), no motion is in order for the General Assembly to direct the SJC to retry a case. The identification of possible exceptions in a CCB report is the necessary prerequisite for a motion to retry a case.
Since this review of the SJC’s minutes is the only line of defense against an error in the SJC, it is a crucial check that the Assembly must not abdicate.
- The General Assembly has Authority over its Committees and their Reports
Retaining the Assembly’s constitutional check on the SJC necessarily includes the right to substitute a minority report from CCB for the committee’s (majority) report. Therefore, minority reports differ from dissenting opinions by providing a procedural mechanism to give the full Assembly the final say in the case of differing opinions within the committee. The PCA’s committees operate under the authority of the Assembly, and not the other way around.
The authority of the Assembly over its committees rests on a fundamental principle of parliamentary law articulated in Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised, that a deliberative assembly may “establish and empower an effective leadership as it wishes, and at the same time to retain exactly the degree of direct control over its affairs that it chooses to reserve to itself” (RONR [12th ed.], “Principles Underlying Parliamentary Law,” emphasis added).
 That is, the parliamentary rules governing the deliberations of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), namely those procedures outlined in Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised (RONR) and the PCA’s Rules of Assembly Operation (RAO).
 I am thankful to RE Matt Fender for suggesting this paragraph.