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Elections Wrap Up

Undermining the Court

The Constitution Court is equipped with "supreme and final authority" to interpret the ASUO Constitution. Ironically, these watch dogs of rules and regulation have slipped themselves.

By Ted Whitaker

The populous of the United States is governed by a system consisting of three equal parts: The legislative, executive, and judicial branches. Every day there are decisions made that affect the spending of other people's money and the limits of our rights. While living in an educational bubble it is easy to forget or ignore the importance of these decision-makers. Whether you know it or not (or even care), as students our rights and money are decided on in a manner equal to that of the outside world by our student government. Not surprisingly, the ASUO is set up according to the same tripartite arrangement as the federal government.

Unless you are completely oblivious to collegiate print media, you can't help but notice the amount of space dedicated to issues that involve the ASUO.

Lately, the issues covered all involve the candidates running for seats in student government - and not the actions of the existing branches themselves. Ever hear of the Constitution Court? For the past few weeks they have been key players in the tired situation concerning CJ Gabbe, Peter Larson and their alleged use of snack food to sway voters.

The Constitution Court (or ConCourt, for short) is the judicial branch of the student government. It is equipped with "supreme and final authority" to interpret the ASUO Constitution. The ConCourt's job is to clarify the law, neutrally resolve disputes through application of that law, and to make sure the ASUO abides by its own laws.

Ironically, this is just the problem. These watch dogs of rules and regulation have slipped themselves.

Let's start at the beginning: If there is an issue somebody would like to see appear as a ballot measure, they must petition the ConCourt. The court then reviews it for clear, objective language and any wording that may influence voters (article 14.5 of the Constitution for those of you interested in a little political endowment). If the petition is rejected, the petitioning party must resubmit it with corrections that satisfy 14.5. It is not within the boundaries of the ConCourt's authority to change the language of a petition for it to be satisfactory, but only to explain the errors made in the initial submission.

ASUO President Wylie Chen petitioned the ConCourt for a 53 cent increase of the student incidental to generate $25,000 so the Designated Driver Shuttle could purchase a new 15-passenger van (for more information on this service see recent ballot measures #3 and #7). The Court found the measure to contain wording unsatisfactory under article 14.5. Instead of the petition being rejected, the ConCourt recoursed to taking, what even they termed, the "unusual and extraordinary step of suggesting alternate language." The court conceded its dealings with measures #3 and #7 were different from previous ballot measures because in this case, the ConCourt made the final revision themselves - without the procedural resubmission.

In an email discussing the petition and the language-changing decision, the ConCourt's former Chief Justice Jeremy Gibons said that this was done "only in recognition of exigent circumstances which would delay a rehearing of such a resubmission until well after the ASUO Elections have ended." When asked exactly what these "exigent circumstances" were, Gibons said he could not comment. "We don't like to do it but sometimes we feel like we have to," he said.

Gibons also discussed the scope of the ConCourt's authority and acknowledged that it is outside of that scope for the ConCourt to tamper with the language of submitted petitions. In this case though, he felt the decision was acceptable. "It's an issue we struggle with because we have to stick to ASUO standards," he said.

Gibons himself pointed out that it's not a good idea to dothis. "By fixing the language of petitions for people we would just be encouraging them to write sloppy ballot measures," he said.

The question remains; where is the line drawn between acceptable and unacceptable decisions based on policy? Any language change no matter how large, or in this case small, is unconstitutional. This is like saying fraudulence is unacceptable, unless it is a little white lie. Chen agreed to the language change but thought the decision was wrong. "I went along with it because they have the ultimate authority and there wasn't really anything I could do about it," he said.

The context of this petition remained the same and a solid issue got on the ballot in time for the elections. At the end of it all, the only harm done is to the credibility of the ConCourt itself. The ASUO has a personal desire to increase its independence and institutional legitimacy. To accomplish this it should start by following its own rules. The actions of future representatives of the Constitution Court will be based in part on the examples set by their preceding associates.

It should be in the Court's best interest to make sure these are good, and at the very least - constitutional - examples.

Ted Whitaker, a junior majoring in Journalism is a staff writer for the Oregon Commentator