By Jacob Gerber | August 11, 2022
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.
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, 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 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.
Objection #1: Minority Reports May only Recommend Substitute Actions
Two objections arose, however, to understanding the general provision in RAO 19-2 as permitting minority reports specifically from within CCB. First, the original point of order argued that minority reports may only substitute recommendations, not information. The draft journal entry states, “TE Larry Hoop raised a point of order that the nature of the CCB makes a minority report inappropriate because the CCB recommends no actions, so it would not be a true minority report, but more like a dissenting opinion.” While this point of order was well received by the Moderator, and sustained by the Assembly upon appeal, our parliamentary rules contradict its argument.
As we noted above, however, RONR [12th ed.] 51:68, 70 are explicit that minority reports dealing only with information are permissible, and that the minority may move their report as a substitute for the Committee report. Furthermore, our RAO reinforces RONR’s procedure for handling minority reports. As RE Fender pointed out in floor debate, RAO 19-2 does not limit minority reports to recommendations only. Rather, the minority report may be moved “as a substitute for the portion of the majority report affected,” without limitation to recommendations only.
Therefore, our parliamentary rules (both RONR and RAO) refute the grounds on which the point of order was raised, ruled upon favorably, and sustained by appeal at the 49th General Assembly.
Objection #2: The RAO Limits Which Committees May Issue Minority Reports
Second, it was also argued that other parts of the RAO specifically outline which committees may issue minority reports, thus implicitly excluding other committees (such as CCB) from issuing minority reports. Against interpreting this absence as an absolute prohibition against minority reports from CCB, it is worth noting that the 31st General Assembly did permit the presentation of minority reports from CCB, although not minority reports dealing with the review of SJC minutes.
More importantly, this objection gets at a fundamental question about how we interpret our rules, a question that must be decided on textual grounds. Basic principles for interpreting our rules textually are articulated in RONR (12th ed.) 56:68, and, by their inclusion in our parliamentary authority (RAO 19-1), these principles of interpretation are binding on how we interpret our rules.
Taken together, these principles reveal two major reasons why this second objection is not a valid interpretation of our rules.
Principles of Interpretation: The General Rule of RAO 19-2 Applies to CCB in the Absence of a Specific Statement to the Contrary
First, RONR states that a rule dealing with a general term (like “committee” in RAO 19-2) applies to all of the specific instances categorized under that general term (e.g., Overtures Committee, CCB, RPR, etc.):
In cases where the bylaws use a general term and also two or more specific terms that are wholly included under the general one, a rule in which only the general term is used applies to all the specific terms. (RONR [12th ed.] 56:68.)
CCB is “wholly included” under the general term, “committee” by being enumerated as a committee in Article IV of the RAO (“Committees and Agencies”; RAO 4-4), and in Article VIII (“Special Committees”; RAO 8-2). Therefore, “a rule [RAO19-2] in which only the general term [“committee”] is used applies to all specific terms [e.g., CCB].”
There are, however, exceptions to this principle. Robert’s Rules also states that if there were a specific statement in the RAO prohibiting CCB members from presenting a minority report, then the specific statement would outweigh the general rule contained in RAO 19-2: “A general statement or rule is always of less authority than a specific statement or rule and yields to it” (RONR [12th ed.] 56:68.). We see an example of this in RAO 14-6.h, which provides a specific prohibition against minority reports from committees of commissioners. There is, however, no similar prohibition against minority reports from CCB.
Thus, in light of the fact that CCB is wholly included in the term “committee,” and apart from any specific provision preventing CCB from issuing minority reports, our adopted principles for interpreting the rules require us to apply the provisions of RAO 19-2 to CCB.
Principles of Interpretation: By Establishing Prohibitions and Limitations on Minority Reports in Some Committees, the RAO Permits Minority Reports from Other Committees (Including CCB)
A second reason against the validity of interpreting the RAO as limiting minority reports to certain committees is from the recognition that the RAO is not giving special, exclusive authorization for minority reports from only a specific set of committees. If so, this would be important, since, in the same section on the principles of interpretation, RONR also provides that “If the bylaws authorize certain things specifically, other things of the same class are thereby prohibited” (RONR [12th ed.] 56:68.). This principle would guide our interpretation if the RAO included a statement to the effect of, “Minority reports from the following committees shall be permitted:….” The RAO, however, does not include anything like this statement.
Instead, we must recognize that the specific provisions in the RAO dealing with minority reports from other committees do not extend special authorization, but place special prohibitions and limitations on them:
- RAO 14-6.h prohibits minority reports from committees of commissioners.
- RAO 15-6.s and 16-7.h limit minority reports from the Overtures Committee and RPR (respectively) by (1) requiring a statement of intention to file a minority report; (2) mandating specific thresholds of the membership of those committees for a minority report to qualify; and (3) establishing deadlines for timely submission of a minority report.
- RAO 15-8.g limits debate for minority reports from the Overtures Committee.
Since these are all limitations on the general provisions for minority reports included in RONR and in RAO 19-2, the following principle of interpretation is decisive:
A prohibition or limitation prohibits everything greater than what is prohibited, or that goes beyond the limitation; but it permits what is less than the limitation, and also permits things of the same class that are not mentioned in the prohibition or limitation and that are not evidently improper. (RONR [12th ed.] 56:68.; emphasis added)
In this case, the “class” of what is being prohibited and limited deals with permission for minority reports from certain committees. So, we have a prohibition against minority reports from committees of commissioners, and we have limitations on minority reports from the Overtures Committee and RPR. By our rules of interpretation, these prohibitions and limitations thereby permit “things of the same class [i.e., minority reports from other committees] that are not mentioned in the prohibition or limitation and that are not evidently improper.”
By this principle of interpretation, minority reports from CCB must be permitted.
In summary, our rules are quite clear:
- Minority reports may be for information only, and a person giving a minority report may move for the minority report to be substituted for the committee report (RONR [12th ed.] 51:70; RAO 19-2). If adopted, the minority report then becomes the report of CCB.
- According to our rules of interpretation (RONR [12th ed.] 56:68), the general rule in RAO 19-2 must apply to CCB, thus requiring a minority from CCB the privilege of having their minority report heard.
- Therefore, the 49th General Assembly was in error to prohibit the minority report from CCB from being presented.
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 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.
This article has necessarily zoomed in to the rules of procedure to determine what our rules truly say about the permissibility of minority reports from CCB. In the next article, we will zoom out to consider the importance of these procedural details related to minority reports for the relationship of the General Assembly to the SJC.
Click here for Part Two: Why This Is Important
 “Minutes of the 49th General Assembly (Draft),” On Site Addition to GA49 Docket, p. 3007–08.
 “Minutes of the 31st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America,” 67; I am thankful for RE Bryce Sullivan’s discovery of this reference.
 This paragraph is included on the chapter in RONR that deals with bylaws; however, the beginning of this section clarifies that these principles of interpretation “have equal application to other rules and documents adopted by an organization,” such as RONR itself or our RAO (RONR [12th ed.] 56:68).
 This is clear from the example RONR gives: “Thus, where Article IV, Section 1 of the Sample Bylaws (56:62) lists certain officers, the election of other officers not named, such as a sergeant-at-arms is prohibited” (RONR [12th ed] 56:68.). In those sample bylaws, the officers are specifically enumerated: “The officers of the Society shall be a President, a First Vice-President, a Second Vice-President, a Recording Secretary, a Corresponding Secretary, a Treasurer, and four Directors.”
 Pace the comment recorded in the Minutes of the 41st General Assembly: “TE Coffin commented that he had not addressed the minority report because, as the minority report is not the report of the CCB, it could never, regardless of its opinion, become the occasion for someone to move that a case be reconsidered” (40). As shown above, if a motion were adopted “to substitute [the minority report] for the committee report,” (RONR [12th ed.] 51:70) or, in RAO, “as a substitute for the portion of the majority report affected” (RAO 19-2), then the minority report would become the report of CCB, thus potentially becoming the occasion for someone to move that a case be reconsidered.