A Michigan Student Assembly effort to revamp the document that governs campus life for students at the University has been deemed unconstitutional by the leading campus judicial body.
In a trial that ended late Monday night, the Central Student Judiciary ruled that the Constitutional Convention, which was being organized and executed by top officials from MSA, violates the student constitution. They also ruled that the convention needed to be disbanded immediately.
When the convention was first presented as a resolution during a weekly MSA meeting earlier this semester, Rackham Rep. Kate Stenvig said she did not think it was constitutional. After the resolution passed, Stenvig brought the case to the CSJ.
Student General Counsel Jim Brusstar and Rules and Elections Committee Chair and Rackham Rep. Michael Benson argued the case on behalf of MSA. They served as secretary and vice chair of the convention, respectively, until it was disbanded last night.
The justices found that the creation of the convention was not in compliance with the student constitution, which states that a convention requires its delegates to be elected.
In preparing for the convention, MSA officials opted to invite all students to apply to serve on the Constitutional Conventional, rather than hold a campus-wide election. MSA President Abhishek Mahanti then reviewed students’ applications and selected about 40 students to serve on the convention. These 40 names were then presented to the assembly for approval.
Stenvig applied to serve on the convention in one of the eight seats allotted for MSA representatives but was not chosen by Mahanti.
CSJ ruled that this process did not qualify as an “election,” which the constitution deems mandatory, and the judicial body ruled the current convention invalid.
“CSJ ruled that the convention should be proportionately represented by school or college and serious questions were raised about whether or not student organizations should be represented at all,” MSA Vice President Mike Rorro wrote in an e-mail to MSA members after the ruling.
Stenvig’s legal representation, Joyce Schon, argued that including so many MSA members in the convention would just advance the majority party’s agenda.
“I think that the current MSA leadership that organized the convention in this manner has been making a series of attacks on the basic democracy and free speech that the MSA constitution provides to students,” Stenvig said.
Stenvig is a leader of the Defend Affirmative Action Party — a party that has held MSA representative seats over the past several years but has never won executive seats. Though they are no longer affiliated with a party, Mahanti and Rorro both ran with the Michigan Vision Party. Two of the eight MSA representatives appointed to the constitutional convention are MVP members.
Schon asserted in the proceedings that different voices are required to update the constitution in an effective manner.
“The reason an election is required is for constituents to elect them,” Schon said. “That’s the only way changes are going to be made.”
Rorro, who served as chair of the Constitutional Convention, said after the meeting that MSA has other means of proposing amendments to the student body, though they are less efficient.
The student body must vote on any amendment to the constitution, no matter how small. The constitution requires one of three methods for an amendment to be added to the ballot, so that it can be voted on by the entire student population.
MSA can garner a two-thirds majority vote to get amendments added to the campus-wide ballot. Alternatively, a student or student group can petition MSA to add proposed amendments to the ballot. Each proposed amendment requires 1,000 student signatures.
The last option, which MSA officials chose and believe to be the most efficient for a major overhaul of campus policy, is to assemble a constitutional convention to present an entire amended constitutional document, which the student body can then vote to approve.
The most current Constitutional Convention was preparing a document to be voted on by the student body during the March campus-wide student government elections.
CSJ ruled that in order for a convention to convene, individual colleges and student groups must elect delegates from their schools or groups to serve on the convention.
MSA representatives drew a parallel between the election process used for the convention and the process used to elect student representatives to the Department of Public Safety Police Oversight Committee. The DPS Oversight Committee is a body intended to check the power of DPS that has recently come under fire for problems with the election processes used to select faculty, student and staff representatives.
Both the DPS Oversight Committee and a constitutional convention call for an “election” to determine student members. In both cases, MSA representatives determined that an internal “nomination and confirmation process” would be sufficient to elect delegates.
Brusstar and Benson used the DPS Oversight Committee selection process as evidence of the constitutionality of their actions.
However, the three CSJ justices who heard the case — Chief Justice Daniel Horwitz, Associate Chief Justice Jonathan Beitner and Justice Michael Huston — ruled that this process did not constitute an “election.”
“That’s a point where I guess I have to disagree with the court,” Brusstar said after the trial. “It’s my interpretation that that is, in fact, a valid form of election.”
The court decided the Constitutional Convention did not proportionally represent the student body, which the student constitution requires.
Benson said MSA will consider appealing the overall decision after the written decisions are released. MSA has until Monday to file an appeal to CSJ.
Rorro said despite the ruling, the executive board intended to represent as many parts of campus as possible through the selection process, but that “obviously it wasn’t enough.”
“But now that we’re re-focusing it we want to make sure that we do get all those opinions and all those voices in the room,” he said. “But no, we’re not stopping, and we really want to give Michigan a document that will live for a long time and ensure that student government works for its constituents.”
Rorro said he expects the amendment process will continue, just through different means.
“There are a couple of different ways to have an amendment to the Constitution,” he said. “I think that our re-writing efforts so far have been very productive and I’m really excited to continue them.”
Rorro suggested that the members already selected to be on the constitutional convention might continue their re-writing efforts. Those students would work to obtain the 1,000 student signatures needed to put the amendments on the ballot for the all-student vote in March.
“I believe the next step is continuing the re-writing process, ensuring that all constituencies are represented in a good way,” he said.
Rorro added that if the convention decides to take this option, it would no longer be an MSA-run initiative but would be a separate student group.
Alternatively, Mahanti said, MSA representatives might internally propose amendments for approval by the assembly, which would then enable them to be put on the student-wide ballot.
“I think that it’s something the assembly has wanted to do,” he said. “I think it’s something that the assembly will still carry forward.”
Mahanti said he is not sure if MSA will initiate another convention using the guidelines laid out by the CSJ ruling, but that the assembly is “back to square one.”