A Closer Look at the Constitutional Council
Published: Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Updated: Tuesday, January 28, 2014 03:01
After a nearly four-year period of inactivity, the Georgetown University Student Association Constitutional Council was convened in the matter of Chess v. GUSA Senate on Jan. 17, bringing the usually quiet council back into political relevance
The body, responsible for internal judicial review, unanimously ruled Jan. 19 in favor of the petition submitted by GUSA Election Commissioner Ethan Chess (COL ’14) to invalidate the GUSA speaker election that voted down then-Vice Speaker Sam Greco’s (SFS ’15) progression to the speaker slot.
According to the GUSA website, the Constitutional Council has the power to interpret all cases upon appeal that fall under the GUSA Constitution. It is made up of three justices who are nominated by the president and confirmed by the senate, and cannot serve in any other GUSA office. A justice’s term lasts until he or she resigns or graduates.
Currently, the three justices are Josh Shinbrot (COL ’16), Sarah Rabon (COL ’16) and Jason Gerson (COL ’14).
Justices are selected based on interest in legal matters.
“You definitely want people who are interested in reading legal-style documents like the GUSA Constitution and bylaws,” Shinbrot said. “You really should have people who have some element of charisma because in the rare event that the Constitutional Council comes to a decision, they have to be able to explain that to campus press, the GUSA senate and make sure they understand it.”
Currently, Shinbrot, who was nominated and confirmed in November, is the only justice who has previously served in GUSA. He, along with fellow justice Rabon, lost September’s senate election for the one Copley Hall seat.
“Having served in the senate last year, I thought it would be interesting to move into a more apolitical position where you’re not dealing with the daily political jousting,” Shinbrot said.
Gerson said his outsider perspective is an asset to the council, not a hindrance.
“I feel that my perspective outside of student government has helped me in efforts to strengthen the Constitutional Council as an objective, independent part of student government,” Gerson, who was confirmed last February, wrote in an email.
The process of deciding whether the council should review a petition begins with an evaluation of two questions.
“The first thing we consider, if we receive a petition, is if there is a legitimate constitutional question. The second is, do we have the power to actually hear this case?” Shinbrot said.
The reviewing of a petition needs the approval of only one councilor.
Thus far, Chess v. GUSA Senate, which all three voted to hear, has been the only judicial decision that the current justices have administered.
According to Shinbrot, after recognizing the presence of legitimate constitutional questions in the Chess v. GUSA Senate case, the council members tried to isolate whether those questions pertained to the GUSA Constitution, which governs the organization and is amended by student referendum, or the GUSA bylaws, which is legislation passed by two-thirds of the senate, and whether there was a conflict between the two documents. Other factors in the process of arbitration include determining whether the council needed to speak with GUSA personnel or if the group needed to obtain access to certain documents.
Although this was the council’s first hearing, Rabon thought the councilors were prepared.
“We all spent considerable time with the constitution and bylaws before to make sure we were ready to serve as councilors. All the other members of GUSA we worked with were really helpful in providing us with specific information on events that had just occurred. I don’t think we really encountered any problems,” she said.
Chess reported satisfaction with the way the council adjudicated the affair.
“The Constitutional Council did a fantastic job. They responded very quickly, and they presented a thorough decision that reﬂected their knowledge and grasp of the issues at hand,” Chess said. “Having not seen them in action for over three years, I was a little surprised at how well they performed.”
Gerson was pleased that the council helped clear confusion.
“I feel most fulfilled when I know that the council’s decision helped resolve an issue that could have prevented the other branches of student government from operating well,” he wrote.
Chess said the council’s decision also established the supremacy of rules.
“My understanding is that there are still several disgruntled senators, but they need to realize that the rules are the rules and they can’t just make them up as they go along,” he said.
GUSA Senator Emily Siegler (SFS ’14), who had defeated Greco in the nullified Jan. 12 speaker election, believes that the council overstepped its boundaries.
“I obviously respect the Constitutional Council and do believe that it is necessary. In terms of its rulings, certain things were point blank out of the jurisdiction of the council to make. Some decisions, in my opinion, should have been left to the GUSA senate, and in the future, might well be,” she said. “While I don’t have the official documents under my eye now, I know that a few things could not have been mandated by the GUSA body under the current language of the council bylaws. So perhaps the challenges were in the wording, and the right intention was there, but it certainly affected the final ruling, which I felt was out of the usual boundaries of what the ruling could have been.”
Moving forward, the council will implement changes in their decision process to increase transparency.
“We’re going to have a tab on the GUSA website where we’ll have opinions, a link to the petition, all that information readily available to all Georgetown students,” Shinbrot said.
The council now looks ahead to the executive election campaigns.