Virginia court to hear appeal on Sweet Briar College closing

FILE This Wednesday May 13, 2015 file photo show graduating seniors at Sweet Briar college participate on the tradition Senior ride on the quad at the school in Sweet Briar, Va.   The senior ride is a tradition where seniors are allowed to ride horses on school grounds.  The Supreme Court of Virginia justices are scheduled to hear an appeal Thursday, June 4, 2015, of a failed bid to block the small college from shuttering its picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains campus in August.  (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
FILE This Wednesday May 13, 2015 file photo show graduating seniors at Sweet Briar college participate on the tradition Senior ride on the quad at the school in Sweet Briar, Va. The senior ride is a tradition where seniors are allowed to ride horses on school grounds. The Supreme Court of Virginia justices are scheduled to hear an appeal Thursday, June 4, 2015, of a failed bid to block the small college from shuttering its picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains campus in August. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The Supreme Court of Virginia will be asked Thursday to temporarily block the planned closure of Sweet Briar College in August.

The justices will hear arguments in the appeal of a Circuit Court ruling that refused to put the brakes on the scheduled shuttering of the all-women’s college.

The lawsuit, one of several aimed at blocking the college from closing its doors, was brought by Amherst County Attorney Ellen Bowyer. She has argued that the college is a trust based on the will of its founder and that Sweet Briar’s decision to close must be approved by a court.

The college maintains that it’s a corporation and that the decision to close rests solely with its governing board.

Bowyer wants the Supreme Court to appoint a fiduciary, or independent agent, to oversee the college until all legal matters are settled.

It is not clear when the justices will rule, but in taking the appeal they noted the intense public interest in the issue.

The case has been watched closely by legal scholars because of its national implications involving trusts and charitable giving.

Typically a ruling is issued a month or more after arguments.

On March 3, Sweet Briar President James F. Jones Jr. and the board announced that crushing financial pressures had made the 114-year-old school’s future operation unsustainable. They cited debt; deferred maintenance costs of the historic 3,250-acre campus; and an endowment that while sizeable is largely restricted. They also cited lagging enrollment.

Since then, a spirited group of alumnae, faculty and students has battled to keep Sweet Briar open. They have portrayed Sweet Briar’s financial plight as overstated and have launched a campaign that has raised more than $12 million in pledges.

At the same time, Attorney General Mark R. Herring has brought together various factions in hopes of reaching a mediated settlement.

The debate over Sweet Briar’s future dates to its creation 114 years ago by Indiana Fletcher Williams on land that had been home to a plantation. She created the school as a “perpetual memorial” to her daughter, Daisy.

Nancy A. McLaughlin has followed the case from afar from the University of Utah College of Law in Salt Lake City because the Virginia justices will be interpreting portions of the Uniform Trust Code, a model law embraced by 30 states, including Virginia.

McLaughlin, a charitable trust scholar, said a ruling concluding that, because Sweet Briar is a corporation, it does not have to seek court approval to close the school and thereby deviate from the terms of Ms. Williams’ bequest, could be “very damaging” for charitable giving.

“People will be reluctant to donate property if they think the charitable corporation to which they donate it to can simply use if for some other purpose other than what they wanted,” she said.

Conversely, if Sweet Briar had to get a court’s approval to close, they would have to explain “to the satisfaction of the court that it has become impossible or impractical to continue to use the property for which Ms. Williams gave it,” McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin stressed she has no position on the case but is interested in the process.

“Whether it has truly become impossible or impractical to run Sweet Brian is an issue for the court to resolve, in my opinion,” she said.

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Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap .

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