There have been further developments over the past week in the ongoing saga between the Central Student Judiciary and Students for Public Interest Research Group in Michigan. The most important of these was that CSJ Chief Justice Tim Harrington decided that the judiciary would not hear an appeal on the PIRGIM case until the Michigan Student Assembly reconvenes in the fall. The main reason for the delay seems to be that the new CSJ justices are unfamiliar with rules and operating procedures of CSJ, as well as the specifics of the PIRGIM case. This delay is representative of the widespread MSA mismanagement that has come to characterize the PIRGIM case.
The most interesting development in the PIRGIM appeal deals specifically with the contention that funding PIRGIM would result in MSA losing its tax-exempt status. Students for PIRGIM has recently discovered that MSA had been filing its tax returns using a 501(h) exemption for many years. This exemption, which permits a tax-exempt organization to dedicate 20 percent of its funding to lobbying activities, would allow MSA to fund a campus chapter of PIRGIM without violating its tax exempt status. PIRGIM, who once thought lobbying-related funding would have to be capped at five percent, believes that this discovery should lead CSJ to issue a stay of enforcement, which would nullify its original ruling and allow for the entire MSA to vote on whether or not to fund the PIRGIM chapter.
The PIRGIM issue has highlighted various procedural mishaps and instances of incompetence from both MSA and Students from PIRGIM. First, the new CSJ justices have shown that they are unfamiliar with their own rules of procedure. By not hearing PIRGIM’s appeal within the 10-day period that is suggested in CSJ’s own manual, CSJ has violated the spirit of its own rules while denying PIRGIM due process.
Additionally, the justices have delayed hearing the appeal because they are not familiar with their own jobs and are similarly unfamiliar with the case before them. While it is understandable that newly appointed CSJ members have had little experience thus far, that does not excuse them from learning what is necessary to hear this appeal in a timely manner. Students should hope that the rest of MSA’s new leadership are more knowledgeable about their offices and more willing to carry out the responsibilities of their positions. It would also be wise for MSA to reconsider the wisdom of an election schedule that leaves critical business at the end of the school year in the hands of fresh representatives and officers still unfamiliar with their positions.
This is not to say that PIRGIM is not without its own faults. PIRGIM discovered the 501(h) exemption after talking with a tax lawyer knowledgeable about MSA’s filings. It seems that talking to a tax lawyer would have been a logical step immediately after PIRGIM became embroiled in a complicated tax law argument. However, neither PIRGIM nor CSJ — whose job presumably includes understanding MSA’s legal status — took this step. Consulting a tax lawyer ahead of the trial could have potentially prevented a month of legal wrangling.
The PIRGIM case has also brought out the worst in people. The feuding and hard feelings created have spilled over into normal MSA proceedings. This acrimonious behavior has continued while MSA leaves plenty of unfinished but critical business for the next term. Whenever MSA does decide to address the PIRGIM case, hopefully it will be done so with civility and a better appreciation of its implications.