Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Juan, Puerto Rico v. Yali Avecedo Feliciano, 589 U.S. _____ (2020), involved a complicated procedural history but a fairly straightforward jurisdiction conundrum and a nunc pro tunc remand. Before getting into the facts, it is worthwhile to address exactly what a nunc pro tunc order is. Nunc pro tunc is a Latin phrase that means “now for then.” Federal courts may use nunc pro tunc orders to “reflect  the reality” of what has actually occurred in a case. Missouri v. Jenkins, 495 U.S. 33, 49 (1990). Simply stated, it is an order that clarifies that it is effective as of an event that occurred previously. What the Supreme Court makes clear in Feliciano is that a federal court may not use a nunc pro tunc judgment to change the record and thereby improperly attempt to restore jurisdiction to a state court when it had none.
In 1979, the Archdiocese of San Juan created a trust (“Trust”) to administer a pension plan for the employees of certain Catholic schools in Puerto Rico. In 2016, employees of some of the schools sued in the Puerto Rican Court of First Instance over the termination of the Trust, an act which eliminated the employees’ pension benefits. The Court of First Instance denied the employees’ request for a preliminary injunction. The Puerto Rican Supreme Court reversed and remanded for the Court of First Instance to determine who of the many named defendants were the responsible parties for paying the pensions. On remand, the Court of First Instance held that the Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church of Puerto Rico was the only defendant with separate legal personhood. The Court of First Instance entered three orders against this defendant to make payment of $4.7 million and for the sheriff to seize church assets. The dates of these orders – March 16, March 26 and March 27, 2018 – become important to the outcome of the case.
The Puerto Rican Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the Archdiocese was a “legally nonexistent entity” but that two other defendants could be ordered to make the payments. The Puerto Rican Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, affirming the Court of First Instance on the issue of whether the Archdiocese is the proper entity to pay the pensions.
Unsatisfied with its multiple visits to the Puerto Rican appellate system, the Archdiocese then petitioned the United States Supreme Court for certiorari on issues over the Free Exercise Clause and the inability of the government to single out an individual religious denomination for discriminatory treatment. Although the Supreme Court requested input from the Solicitor General, who believed the issue was over the religious autonomy doctrine, the Supreme Court decided the case on entirely different grounds. The procedural history of the case not only involved repeated trips to the Puerto Rican appellate courts, but the case had also detoured to the federal district court in this middle of this litigation. Specifically, after the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico’s first remand, the Archdiocese removed the case to federal district court for Puerto Rico, asserting federal jurisdiction as a result of a chapter 11 bankruptcy case the Trust had filed. The bankruptcy case was dismissed on March 13, 2018, but the district court remand to the Court of First Instance did not occur until August 20, 2018. In its remand order, the federal district court made the remand effective nunc pro tunc to March 13, 2018 – the date the bankruptcy case was dismissed and the basis for federal jurisdiction was eliminated and three days before the first of the payment and seizure orders were entered by the Court of First Instance.
The United States Supreme Court explained that the effect of the removal to federal district court was to render the state court (here, the Court of First Instance) without any jurisdiction, as a result of which its proceedings were not merely erroneous but absolutely void. Simply stated, the three seizure orders of March 16, March 26 and March 27, 2018 were void. The fact that the Archdiocese participated in the state court proceedings after it removed the case to federal district court did not restore jurisdiction on the state court. Along similar lines, the district court’s remand to state court by way of a nunc pro tunc judgment that the order shall be effective as of March 13, 2018 (when the bankruptcy case was dismissed) was ineffective. Nunc pro tunc judgment is not an “Orwellian vehicle for revisionist history – creating ‘facts’ that never occurred in fact,” United States v. Gillespie, 666 F. Supp 1137, 1139 (N.D. Ill. 1987). The federal district court’s error was to make the record something that it simply was not. March 13, 2018 was the day the federal district court lost jurisdiction by the dismissal of the bankruptcy case, but the actual remand was not until August 20, 2018. Therefore, the state court jurisdiction was not restored until August 20, 2018, its prior payment and seizure orders were void, and the federal district court could not use a remand order made effective nunc pro tunc to March 13, 2018 to change that record.