Updated: Sunday, Oct. 9 at 3:12 p.m.
The Student Court unanimously ruled that Student Association President Christian Zidouemba is the legitimate president and can remain in his position.
Chief Justice Devin Eager, who presented the decision Sunday, said the court unanimously held that only one person can hold any position in the executive cabinet, meaning that neither chief of staff was constitutionally confirmed and invalidating the removal vote. The decision ends a monthlong judicial process through the Student Court addressing constitutional questions that have lingered since late June.
“Today we answer questions resulting from a particular constitutional crisis that caused great confusion and undue controversy,” he said.
Eager said the court ruled former acting Chief of Staff Cordelia Scales was never constitutionally confirmed, leaving her no constitutional basis to seek damages.
Eager said the decision to use Article 15 of the SA Constitution, which states that the vice president, legislator general, communications director and treasurer and chief of staff must be present and unanimously vote in favor of removing the SA president.
“We hope that any future invocations of this provision are dealt with in such a manner acknowledging the gravity of the situation, and not the nonchalant, quick and insignificant way such a decision was made in this case,” he said. “Each Student Association member owes a duty to the students, the University, alumni and others.”
The court also unanimously said the president is permitted to terminate members of their cabinet in the time between a vote to remove the president and the submitting of a letter notifying the chief justice of the vote, but that termination would not affect the results of the vote.
The decision calls the removal attempt and the confusion afterward a period of “helter-skelter” within the SA. The decision urges SA members to properly consider potential consequences to their behavior before taking such a “critical action” as using Article 15.
The decision states that because Article 15 dictates the vice president becomes acting president once the letter is submitted, the president does not lose the powers of the office until the letter is submitted.
“This is logical because it would be illogical to have a point in time when there was no President of the Student Association, especially during a tumultuous time like one that would involve the invocation of Article XV, Section 3,” the decision reads. “We have already seen the pandemonium and turmoil that can be caused when this section of the Constitution is invoked.”
Eager noted that the decision to remove Zidouemba occurred over “an extremely short timeframe.”
“The decision to remove the President is undoubtedly a grave one and here, such a major decision was made within just thirty-one minutes,” the decision reads.
Andrew Harding, the legislator general, said Keanu Rowe will serve as acting chief of staff until the SA Senate re-confirms him. Zidouemba previously appointed Ishan Lal to serve as deputy chief of staff, so he avoids having two people holding the same position.
Cordelia Scales said Zidouemba “created an unconstitutional situation in the SA.” She said the Student Court has “thankfully” recognized the unconstitutional action and “prevented it in the future.”
The last SA president, Brandon Hill, appointed two chiefs of staff, assigning one to assist the president and one to manage the SA’s executive and legislative branches.
The decision states because the constitution does not refer to multiple “chiefs of staff,” only one person can serve in the position. It states instituting multiple chiefs of staff would cause confusion on which person would fulfill each duty of the office as stated in the constitution.
The decision states that because Scales was not properly confirmed as chief of staff, Zidouemba’s attempt to terminate her had no legal effect on Zidouemba or Scales.
The decision states that the attempted removal was “nothing short of embarrassing” for the SA.
The decision follows months of disputes within the Student Association on the purpose and use of its constitution.
After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, ending federal abortion protections in June, more than 3,600 community members signed a petition calling for the removal of Justice Clarence Thomas from his teaching position at GW Law. Officials announced they would not fire Thomas from his position in June, shortly after the petition launched.
In response to officials’ decision to retain Thomas, more than 50 student leaders signed an open letter once again calling on the University to remove Thomas. More than a dozen of these signatures came from SA members, nine of which were on Zidouemba’s executive cabinet.
Members of Zidouemba’s executive cabinet said he had initially threatened to fire SA members if they included their formal SA titles on the open letter. Zidouemba eventually permitted SA members to use their titles on the letter and said he “never intended to fire anybody” in his cabinet.
But Edyth Koenigs, a former senior policy advisor who in Zidouemba’s cabinet, who later resigned said they felt Zidouemba was “condescending” in his communications with cabinet members.
On July 1, at 5:39 p.m., former acting chief of staff Cordelia Scales, former legislator general Dylan Basescu, former treasurer Faheem Ahmad, Vice President Yan Xu and communications director Aiza Saeed unanimously voted to remove Zidouemba under Article 15 of the SA Constitution, deeming him “erratic” and unfit to lead.
On July 1, at 5:52 p.m. Zidouemba terminated Basescu and Scales “for failure to properly execute their duties.” At 6:06 p.m., Xu submitted a letter informing the Chief Justice of the Student Court Devin Eager and Senate Chairperson Pro Tempore Demetrius Apostolis of the results of the vote, in accordance with the SA Constitution.
But Xu and Saeed later withdrew their removal votes the next day, publicly stating Zidouemba was the legitimate leader of the SA and claiming the removal vote was rushed. Saeed said she “was pressured” by other members of the executive cabinet into voting for Zidouemba’s removal.
The following week, on July 7, the SA Senate held public hearings inquiring on the attempted removal. Basescu, Scales and six other executive cabinet members testified as witnesses to the power struggle.
Following the power struggle, Zidouemba has continued to serve as president, although at least seven executive cabinet members – including Basescu and Scales – resigned from their positions since July.
On July 14, former chief of staff Cordelia Scales filed a lawsuit with the Student Court alleging Zidouemba improperly terminated her because he did not have presidential powers in the minutes following his removal vote. In her initial filing, she requested the court declare that Zidouemba is not the legitimate president and that they reinstate her as the chief of staff.
Basescu, on behalf of the former executive chief of staff Cordelia Scales, argued in briefs submitted to the court in mid-September that Article 15 of the Student Association Constitution gives the executive cabinet the power to remove the president in emergency situations. He argued that both Scales and Zidouemba’s other chief of staff, Keanu Rowe, could individually wield all powers of the chief of staff, including the power to remove the president.
Andrew Harding and Juan Carlos Mora, representing SA President Christian Zidouemba, argued the SA Senate improperly confirmed both Rowe and Scales to the same position, so neither of them were chief of staff, constitutionally. They argued because neither person served as chief of staff, the removal vote must be considered null.
The court agreed with the defense’s argument, saying the SA Senate unconstitutionally confirmed two chiefs of staff.
“As such, we hold that President Zidouemba was never removed from office because Cordelia Scales was never the president’s chief of staff,” Eager said when delivering the judgment.
This post has been updated to include the following:
This post has been updated to include information from the Student Court’s written decision.