The Supreme Court on Monday vacated and remanded a petition from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Juan, Puerto Rico, challenging whether courts in the commonwealth could override its legal structure and force affiliates to face pension liability as a single entity.
The archdiocese filed for bankruptcy protection in August after receiving a $4.7 million judgment in a 2016 case brought by pension plan participants against the Superintendence of Catholic Schools of the Archdioceses of San Juan. After the Puerto Rico Supreme Court authorized immediate seizure of church assets, the archdiocese tried but failed to seek bankruptcy protection.
The Supreme Court decision did not address the questions raised by the archdiocese's petition, instead ruling that the Puerto Rico court did not have the jurisdiction to order payments and asset seizures after the archdiocese moved the case to a federal court, which later remanded it back to the Puerto Rico court.
When the jurisdiction changes, previous judgments are "absolutely void," the high court said. While the U.S. solicitor general urged it to consider the questions of whether a state can interfere with the structure of a religious entity, "we think the preferable course at this point is to remand the case to the Puerto Rico courts to consider how to proceed in light of the jurisdictional defect we have identified," the order said.