Two steps back

The proposed honor reforms do not address the problem that the University community has lost confidence in the system because of the single sanction

I WRITE to urge my fellow members of the academic community to reject the recently proposed changes to our Honor System. As a second-year law student here at Virginia, I am shocked that these proposals are being accorded serious consideration, as these so-called “reforms” are wholly inconsistent with basic precepts of due process and the adversarial system of fact-finding.

The Honor Committee’s proposal to replace standard, randomly selected juries with so-called “elected juries” is both misguided and misnamed. It is important to understand exactly what the Committee’s proposal entails. It would vest the terrible power of the single sanction in an elite group of students who affirmatively identify themselves as willing to impose it upon their peers. Its members would wield such authority even though they would represent only a tiny proportion of the larger student body. Worst of all, they would be part and parcel of a larger Honor System bureaucracy. Thus, every student who is prosecuted by Honor would be judged guilty or innocent by another arm of Honor, instead of a random selection of their peers.

Do not be misled: Despite the Honor Committee’s assertions to the contrary, this proposed body is not a “jury.” There is a word for an institution which is given plenary authority to investigate violations, charge alleged offenders, and pass judgment upon those charged. They are called “inquisitions.”

The Honor Committee’s own infographic demonstrates that the Committee has lost touch with the purpose of Honor adjudication. The rationale for abandoning traditional juries, according to the Committee, is that confidence in Honor is undermined by “inconsistent verdicts.” Enacting the proposed inquisitorial system, we are told, “will result in consistent verdicts that uphold the purpose of the Honor System.” The Committee misapprehends its mission. The point of adjudication is not to arrive at consistent verdicts; it is to arrive at accurate verdicts. The courts of the Soviet Union may have been consistent in their verdicts, but that was small comfort to those who were convicted wrongfully by them.

The Committee’s “informed retraction” proposal does not remedy the defects of an inquisitorial system, but actually reinforces them. Barring the existence of clearly exculpatory evidence (in which case no Honor charge would be brought in the first instance), what accused would risk full expulsion at the hands of the Committee’s proposed inquisition? What Honor Counsel could legitimately advise an innocent client in a close case to take their case to trial? The “informed retraction” does nothing but ensure that accused innocents will plead guilty in order to preserve a certain opportunity to obtain an education. Should this measure pass, nearly all who are accused will admit guilt. If that occurs, the Committee will no doubt tout this consistency as evidence of its success.

The real problem facing the Honor System is widespread de facto rejection of the single sanction by the academic community. So long as expulsion remains the only punishment for any instance of lying, cheating, or stealing, students and faculty will under-report such violations, and juries will under-convict. That this occurs does not mean that we should turn Honor trials into show trials, or ensure that those charged feel forced to plead guilty. It only means that the single sanction frequently exceeds the academic community’s sense of proportional justice. I’m sure that if the criminal sanction for theft was mandatory capital punishment, one would likely see a steep drop in theft conviction rates as well. The truth that the Honor Committee must confront is that under-enforcement is simply the cost of maintaining the single sanction.

Ronald Fisher is a second-year Law student.


Published January 28, 2013 in Opinion





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