Reforming a perspective

Some criticism of the Restore the Ideal act rests on flawed assumptions about honor trial proceedings

In the last few weeks the Honor Committee’s Restore the Ideal proposal has sparked an unprecedented wave of conversation about the University’s honor system. Some of it has been constructive and enlightening; a great deal of it has been accusatory and unproductive. As a second-year honor advisor, I have been frustrated by the willingness of my fellow students to vilify the Honor Committee for its well-intentioned proposal, especially when much of the bombastic anti-honor rhetoric has its roots in common misunderstandings. One example is the Feb. 19 Cavalier Daily op-ed, (“Restoring an ideal community of trust,”) in which Batten School student Kyle Schnoebelen’s denigration of the Honor Committee represents a larger problem in the overall honor debate. The importance of the Restore the Ideal proposal in determining the future health of the honor system cannot be overstated, so let’s stop disparaging our fellow students and start talking about what the proposal actually is: a genuine attempt to reward honesty and punish dishonesty in a fair and consistent manner. Schnoebelen laments that the Honor Committee lacks an “elementary understanding of the purpose of juries,” and is thus trying to take a fundamental right away from University students. I’d like to move the conversation beyond this misconception so we can focus on what really matters.

Simply put, the jury’s role in an honor trial and a criminal court case are not comparable. Schnoebelen brings up Law student Ronald Fisher’s claim from his Jan. 28 editorial (“Two steps back”) that the reforms are inconsistent with the basic principle of “the adversarial system of fact-finding.” But the difference between honor trials and criminal court cases lies in the error of Fisher’s assumption; honor does not rely on an adversarial system of fact-finding. In a criminal court, the jury is a silent body that sits to the side of the proceedings. It looks on as attorneys engage in adversarial arguments designed to provide the jury with an exhaustive case for each side. The skill and experience of each attorney gives each side fair consideration in the court of law. Honor counsel do not engage in this type of “lawyering.” They can only ask open-ended questions designed to draw out the truth. They cannot pose leading questions, they cannot make emotional appeals and they can only directly communicate with the jury in a short closing statement. Without adversarial “lawyering” the responsibility falls on the jury to ask the tough questions, to delve deeper into the evidence and to give the accused student the full and exhaustive trial that he or she deserves.

This is why we cannot compare honor juries and criminal court juries. Honor juries are not silent bystanders — they sit at the front of the trial room and are responsible for leading the trial and steering the discussion. The subjective nature of some of the honor criteria makes it essential that the jury is willing to put in the legwork to make an informed decision. Unfair trials and inconsistent verdicts derive from jurors being too inexperienced and sometimes too indifferent to do this. No one claims that randomly selected students are not able or qualified to perform this duty — they just can’t receive the training they need to do so in the short time they have to prepare for a trial. All attempts to institute extra training for random juries before trial have been met by resistance, and no amount of pre-trial prep could rival the Committee’s exhaustive training program. Just like it would be absurd to put a randomly selected citizen in place of a seasoned attorney in a criminal court case, it makes very little sense to put a randomly selected student on the jury panel of an honor case.

Another common charge is that the community of trust will be torn asunder if jury reform passes. To this, I simply ask: was there no community of trust before 1990? That is the year randomly selected student panels became part of the honor system. Since then, we have allowed ourselves to be duped into thinking that every student has an inalienable right to sit on an honor jury. Even if one considers it to be a right to have a jury of our peers, it is a more fundamental right to receive a fair trial — something that our broken system does not provide. And if the system continues to remain hobbled under the weight of its own flaws, if it continues to lose faculty support, and if it continues to hand out verdicts on an inconsistent and unfair basis, one day we will look around and see the ruins of our community of trust crumble around us in the ultimate failure of student self-governance. Far from hurting the community of trust, jury reform and the informed retraction will restore the sustainable and supportable honor system that served the University for almost 150 years. What do you want the future of the honor system to look like? We owe it to ourselves and to future students to cast aside unproductive accusations and consider this question. Voting began yesterday — let’s clean up the conversation, get rid of the misconceptions and restore the ideal.

Nick Hine is a second-year College student and an honor advisor.

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