Restoring an ideal community of trust

Passing the Honor Committee’s new jury reform would be a step backward for student self-governance

Please tell me this is a joke. Please tell me that writing this article is like when the Chinese publication People’s Daily picked up a satirical Onion piece about Kim Jong Un being named 2012’s “Sexiest Man Alive” and took it seriously. Please tell me that students at Thomas Jefferson’s University are not actually considering abandoning their right to an honor trial by a jury of their peers.

If you are not already aware, we will soon vote on a single honor proposal consisting of two changes. The first change would allow an accused student the opportunity for informed retraction (an admittance of guilt) and a return to the University after a year of absence, rather than facing the single sanction. This idea means well and warrants serious discussion. The same cannot be said, however, for the second change. Billed as “jury reform,” it would replace randomly selected juries of University students with a select group of specially trained and educated “jurors.”

We cannot continue to treat the debate about juries as a policy dispute between two well-intentioned parties. The euphemistic terms employed in this publication and others thus far should be reserved for sensible disagreements, not brazen attacks on a fundamental tenet of popular sovereignty. If a national political party proposed such an action — that we dispose of the right to a trial in criminal cases by a jury of one’s peers — the backlash would entail much more than a few angry editorials. So excuse me for henceforth refusing to use the words “jury reform” in reference to this incestuous, half-baked proposal. This is not a “reform” of any existing system, nor is it a “restoration” of any existing ideal. And it has nothing to do with preserving the community of trust. A yes vote on this proposal means abandoning juries and empowering a marauding tribunal of over-zealous resume-builders to impose their insulated conception of “honor” on the rest of the student populace.

As a Jan. 28 Cavalier Daily guest submission by second-year Law student Ronald Fisher pointed out, the proposal is “wholly inconsistent with basic precepts of due process and the adversarial system of fact-finding,” and demonstrates a lack of even the most elementary understanding of the purpose of juries. Law professors Josh Bowers and Kim Forde-Mazrui have argued the same in the Virginia Law Weekly. These assessments, along with others opposing honor’s proposal, fault the reasoning of the supporters, but stop short of questioning their intent. I will not afford supporters the same nicety.

The Honor Committee would argue that because they are elected, and their proposed tribunal would be as well, they are representative of the student body. But honor representatives do not necessarily hold attitudes similar to those of other students. Look no further than the “Campaign for Honor Informational Video,” which features a representative griping about “inexperienced jurors” acquitting clearly guilty students. They know this because they alone are enlightened with truth, having performed the magical dance at the specified time by the keyhole of the Rotunda to consult the ghost of Thomas Jefferson.

We have juries so that students may be judged by the letter of the law, as well as by the conventions of their peers. Would a randomized jury return a guilty verdict for someone who took Adderall without a prescription or used someone else’s ID to get into a bar? Probably not. How about a zealous tribunal composed of the same type of students who tend to run for honor in the first place? Who knows? After all, the Honor Committee just voiced near-unanimous approval for a proposal on which the actual student body is deeply divided at best. Evidently, the reason jury verdicts are so vexing to the Honor Committee is that the Committee’s views do not represent that of the average student. It must be distressing to see persons they know are guilty be acquitted by the temperamental, uninformed masses who, according to the Committee, are uninterested or otherwise unqualified for the pursuit of truth.

There is, however, an even simpler and far more serious reality that the Honor Committee has failed to grasp: once we decide that our community cannot be trusted to enforce its own standards, we’ve already lost. We will have admitted that there is no community of trust. It will exist in name only, hence why integrity must be imposed upon it by a select group of only the specially qualified. If this is the case, then there is no ideal left to restore, no community left to protect. Students who are not a part of this tribunal are devoid of principles, incapable of defending them even if they had any, and must await judgment from their more honorable peers.

I, for one, refuse to subscribe to this view. So please, stop calling this noxious proposal a “jury reform,” and stop letting honor representatives refer to it as such. Be honest about what it means. Or don’t, because if this idea is actually being accorded serious consideration within the University community, maybe honor is right — we aren’t suited to the messy work of self-governance. If that is the case, perhaps it is best to simply not try, and to not see this reign of witches pass over.

Kyle Schnoebelen is a master’s student in the Batten School.

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