Student Court rules SA Senate seats reserved for SMPA, Corcoran, Trachtenberg invalid

The Student Court declared Sunday that Student Association Senate seats for the School of Media and Public Affairs, Corcoran School of the Arts and Design and Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration are invalid and scrapped them from the body.

SA President Brandon Hill filed a complaint against a Joint Elections Commission advisory opinion that allowed all Columbian College of Arts and Sciences students to vote for the CCAS senate race but not for the SMPA or Corcoran races if the voter is not a member of one of those schools. After a court hearing Sunday, the court released an order stating the “reserved seats” within CCAS are “inconsistent” with the SA charter and the University’s Guide to Student Rights and Responsibilities.

The SA’s revised constitution, which is governing the upcoming SA elections and will go into full effect in the fall, originally featured SMPA, Corcoran and Trachtenberg School seats in the makeup of the senate.

All undergraduate students who wish to run for CCAS seats, including those who intended to run for the SMPA or Corcoran seats, are required to accumulate at least 50 signatures from students to become a candidate, according to the ruling. Candidates for the former SMPA and Corcoran seats only needed 10 signatures.

All graduate students who wish to run for CCAS seats, including those who intended to run for the Trachtenberg School seats, are required to receive at least five signatures from students, the ruling states. Candidates for the former Trachtenberg School seat also only needed five signatures.

As part of the decision, the court extended the candidate registration deadline from Wednesday, March 3 to Saturday, March 6 at 9 p.m.

“Given the extension of the registration period, the Joint Elections Committee is highly recommended to move all subsequent election-related events and periods accordingly,” the order states.

The JEC is also required to release a new calendar of “election-related” events on its website and submit it to Chief Judge Maggie O’Brien and Hill, the SA president, “as soon as possible.”

The court will release its full, final judgment, explaining the rationale for its decision, on Sunday, March 7 at 2 p.m. The judges declined to provide additional comment on the case for now, deferring to the hearing video.

Hill said during the hearing Sunday that the language in the new constitution accounting for the apportionment of seats was in accordance with and “strongly supported” by both the SA charter and GW’s Guide to Student Rights and Responsibilities.

“The apportionment does not lead to the overrepresentation or underrepresentation of any group, as these reserved seats are still and should be considered to represent the Columbian College as a whole, regardless of reservation status,” he said.

Hill said students in specific schools within CCAS and in CCAS generally have similar “characteristics,” like going to the same academic advising department, but their experiences are not exactly the same. He said providing students in each school a seat would offer a way to increase representation for underrepresented students.

“I think there are many different distinguished issues that these populations face on top of the issues that the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences face,” Hill said. “And so it’s really just giving them a first crack at the opportunity.”

Hill said in an interview that giving students the ability to vote for a seat that represents their own school “should not have been this difficult.” He said he is looking forward to an opportunity to reintroduce the seats in the SA in a way that is considered constitutional.

“I am truly saddened and disappointed by the outcome of the case,” Hill said. “Personally, and respectfully, I think the Student Court took the easy way out on this one, and it saddens me that as a result of it, students in SMPA, the Corcoran School and the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy [and Public Administration] lose their guaranteed chance of representing themselves.”

Trip Johnson, the JEC vice chair who served as the defendant in the case, said the section of the new constitution that provided reserved seats for undergraduate students in Corcoran and SMPA should be invalid, as the court ruled. He said the provision infringes on “essential representational equality” by failing to extend reserved seats to the graduate students in those respective schools.

“We believe that this section is unconstitutional, and we believe this because of the fact that this article lays forth that there will be reserved seats for the undergraduate students in Corcoran and SMPA, but there are not reserved seats for the graduate counterparts of these respective schools,” he said at the court hearing Sunday.

Chloe Wagner, the chair of the JEC, said the formerly reserved seats will be converted to CCAS seats for the SA election. Seven seats are now reserved for CCAS undergraduate students, and four seats are now reserved for CCAS graduate students.

The members of the JEC collectively said they respect the court’s decision.

“We will continue to work toward fair elections in the coming weeks,” the JEC said in an email.

Drew Amstutz, a former candidate vying for the SMPA seat, said the creation of an SMPA seat “finally” allowed for recognition for the school specifically. He said the SMPA senator could have catered directly to the school instead of CCAS overall.

Amstutz added he will not run for a CCAS senate seat in the upcoming election.

“I think that we’ve missed out on a lot of opportunities for having student advocacy within the SMPA communities because the court decided to step in and strike down the seat,” Amstutz said. “I also think that this is something that was done in a manner that was uncalled for, that it was not the court’s purview to insert itself into the creation of our new constitution.”

SA Sen. Chris Pino, CCAS-U and a candidate formerly vying for the Corcoran seat, said the court’s decision is “disappointing but unsurprising.” He said as an SA senator, he has seen a “recurring theme” of “great institutional hostility” to allow all students to have a voice at the table – particularly those from Corcoran.

He said he will run for a second term as a CCAS undergraduate senator.

“I am also exploring legal remedies that could resolve this lack of representation, including the possibility of placing referenda on the 2021 ballot,” Pino said. “All students deserve adequate and meaningful representation, not just the most common or popular ones. The fight must go on.”

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