In this series of ti morceaux explaining the work of the Tribunal in handling marriage cases, both the basic process as well as some of the most common grounds have been dealt with. We’ve now reached the end of the standard way a case is handled, from its submission, to the Judicial Vicar’s appointing a judge to the case and selection of grounds in it, to the gathering of evidence (usually written answers to brief questionnaires), to the opportunity given to the parties to provide final verification of those proofs and any last analysis of this by them.
As I mentioned last time, once everything has been submitted, the conclusion of “evidence-gathering” means that it’s time for the Tribunal’s final decision. The judge in the case (or in unusual or specially difficult cases, the panel of three judges) examine all of the evidence again, evaluate the observations which have been submitted by the parties and those who are assisting them, and lastly hear with special attention the observations of the Tribunal-officer known as the “Defender of the Bond.” These last are crucially important because the defender of the bond all along opposes the petition and objects to the proposed grant of any declaration of invalidity. It is his or her duty to propose and help clarify everything which reasonably suggests that the marriage is not invalid.
Notice I said “reasonably.” In many cases there isn’t a reasonable argument to make to counter the hypothesis of invalidity: there is simply too much evidence supporting this and hardly anything contradicting the logical conclusion that a valid, lifelong bond of matrimony wasn’t established at the wedding. But in cases involving an alleged defect of consent – perhaps due to some inadequate ability to understand or commit to marriage – the crucial question comes down to a matter of degree: every human being is a sinner, has less-than-perfect judgmental abilities, and sometimes makes mistakes. The defender of the bond helps the judge distinguish problematic issues and circumstances which are truly minor from those which may have destroyed from the very beginning the possibility of a valid marriage.
In the end, the decision is made; then, as soon as possible, it is put into writing and the parties notified by mail. Both parties and the defender of the bond have the right to appeal the decision if they do not agree with all or part of it: appeals from the Diocesan Tribunal of Baton Rouge are made to the Metropolitan Tribunal of New Orleans, or beyond that to the Apostolic Tribunal of the Roman Rota. Sure there are formalities to pursue in making appeal (merely dilatory appeals, such as sometimes flow from lingering enmity between the parties, are not allowed). But if an affirmative decision is not appealed, it goes into effect 15 days after it is finalized and communicated to the parties.