Student Court sets hearing date next month for case on first-year senator elections

Updated: Sept. 28, 2021 at 10:26 a.m.

The Student Court will hear a challenge next month to Student Association Senate legislation establishing a fall referendum that could reinstate first-year senate seats, the court ordered Sunday.

The order schedules a hearing on Oct. 10 as part of proceedings for the SA Office of Legislator General’s lawsuit against SA Vice President Kate Carpenter, Sen. Cordelia Scales, SEAS-U and senate chairperson pro tempore, and Sen. Chris Pino, CCAS-U and the legislation’s sponsor. Justices unanimously denied two motions from Pino to dismiss the complaint and to seal part of his accompanying argument, saying Pino’s motion to dismiss indicated a misunderstanding of the SA’s governing documents and citing a need to maintain transparency with the student body in opposing his motion to seal.

“We find the Defendants’ arguments to be unavailing because they misunderstand the language of our governing documents and case law or otherwise highlight the nature of the issues precisely requiring review and adjudication by this Court,” the order reads.

The legislator general’s office filed a complaint earlier this month seeking to prevent a referendum in which students would vote on whether the SA should bring first-year seats back to the senate after the positions were scrapped in a court ruling last November.

Pino, who motioned to dismiss the case last week, argued in his motion that the court lacks jurisdiction over the case because the student body has not yet voted to adopt any referenda as constitutional amendments. He argued that the court only has jurisdiction over “actions successfully taken” to amend the constitution, not those that may be taken in the future.

The court rejected this argument, stating that justices can rule on legislative action the senate has taken, including the special resolution to set a fall referendum.

“Defendants’ allusion to the need for acts to fall within some novel specialized action-dependent category of ‘constitutional actions’ for this Court to have jurisdiction have no textual, historical, legal or any other practical basis, and we therefore reject these arguments in their entirety,” the order states.

Pino contended that the legislator general office’s representation of the SA’s executive branch against its legislative branch breaks from the SA’s constitution, which he said mandates representation of the SA as a whole. Justices also rejected this argument, calling it a “live constitutional dispute” that the court should hear.

Justices also dismissed Pino’s motion to seal a portion of his motion for dismissal because students should not be “deprived” of information from the student government. Pino wrote in his motion that his reason for keeping that portion redacted was to protect the “identities and records” of the involved parties given his arguments’ “sensitive nature.”

The order states that sealing documents must be done “sparingly and judiciously” when considering the likelihood of harm to the parties involved and the circumstances of each case.

“To permit sealing otherwise would hamper students in making informed judgments regarding the competence and diligence of their student government – including this very Student Court – as it theoretically goes about faithfully representing their interests to the University administration and wider community,” the order reads.

The court released the un-redacted version of Pino’s argument, which states that the legislator general’s office’s complaint attempts to advance a “frivolous” personal and political agenda at the request of SA President Brandon Hill. Pino alleges in the unsealed motion that Hill instructed the legislator general’s office to file a complaint against the referendum to block the senate’s push to implement first-year senate elections.

Pino said in the unsealed motion that Hill is using the judicial system to advance his policy agenda while “hiding” behind the legislator general’s office. He said Hill repeatedly argued against and threatened to veto first-year senator legislation in public and private meetings.

“This Complaint is step one of a bad-faith plan that seeks to autocratically undermine elections, the bedrock of democratic representation and aggrandize Executive power,” Pino said in the motion.

Hill originally said at the senate meeting earlier this month that he opposed holding the referendum and was prepared to seek the court’s opinion.

Hill did not return a request for comment.

Pino said in a statement that he agrees with the court’s decision to dismiss his motion to keep part of his argument sealed, and students have a right to access documents related to this case. He said he is “pleased” the court will determine the legality of Hill’s and the legislator general’s involvement in the complaint, and he hopes the court’s decision will allow for the return of first-year senators.

“I look forward to further court proceedings, where I will advance and substantiate the case for first-year representation as envisioned in the First-Year Senators Amendment Act,” Pino said.

The order states that the plaintiffs and defendants must submit briefs to the court by Sunday at 5 p.m., answering questions about the constitutionality of elections for first-year senators and the legislator general’s representation of the SA. “Any individual or organization” can also submit briefs to Chief Justice Yun-Da Tsai by Wednesday, Oct. 6 at 5 p.m. to participate in the oral argument, according to the order.

Assistant Legislator General Andrew Harding said members of the office “welcome” the court’s decision to reject Pino’s motions to dismiss the complaint and seal parts of his argument.

“We appreciate the court sharing our strongly held belief that students deserve a transparent government, while unanimously denouncing the defendants’ attempts to conceal arguments from the public,” Harding said in a statement.

Carpenter, the SA’s vice president, said she will not take an official stance on either side of the case, and she hopes the SA can still advocate for the student body despite the ongoing debate. She said the SA and student body must maintain transparency through the court case and outside of the judicial proceedings.

“It is our obligation to maintain an approachable governing body,” Carpenter said in a statement. “Therefore, we must inform all of the decisions we make.”

Scales, the senate chairperson pro tempore, did not return a request for comment.

The court also extended its injunction blocking the SA’s special elections committee from scheduling any fall referenda until the reading of the court’s final judgment. The court will live-stream arguments from the hearing on social media, according to the order.

This post has been updated to clarify the following:
This post has been updated to clarify that Pino supports the court’s decision to dismiss his motion to redact part of his argument.

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