The moral of the story

The passage of Bellamy’s informed-retraction referendum gives us some answers about honor

After a contentious campaign season that culminated in one of the highest turnouts in recent memory, the student body of the University of Virginia has approved the most significant reforms to honor in several decades — albeit not the reforms the Honor Committee originally hoped would pass. The approval of second-year Law student Frank Bellamy’s referendum and the rejection of the Restore the Ideal Act place the future path of honor in some doubt. What proportion of honor cases will go to trial? How many convictions will be handed down? Will informed retraction improve the perception of honor in the eyes of faculty and the student body? Such questions cannot be answered until the new informed retraction system is given the chance to operate for a reasonable period of time. Yet, while the election results certainly raised new questions, they also provided three definitive answers which current and future Honor Committees should take heed of.

Answer #1: The University student body is fully engaged with the honor system.

Whatever may happen in the future, the idea that today’s student body is neither engaged nor interested in honor has been utterly discredited. More than 40 percent of the student body turned out for this election — an astoundingly high number. While one certainly could wish for even higher turnout, 40 percent nonetheless represents a massive increase over last spring’s participation rate. It is clear the University of Virginia student body cares deeply about honor.

However one might have felt about the substance of the Reform the Ideal Act (and I was one of its most outspoken critics), the Honor Committee and its president, fourth-year College student Stephen Nash, deserve significant accolades for taking the difficult step of admitting that the system is in crisis, and for incurring political risk by putting reforms before the student body. Although their specific reform proposal ultimately failed, their refusal to simply stand by as a fundamentally flawed system continued to deteriorate ultimately made honor relevant again. For that leadership, we should all be grateful.

Answer #2: The ‘elected jury’ concept is dead.

After Bellamy succeeded in placing a stand-alone informed retraction referendum on the ballot, voters had three options: 1) Keep the current honor system; 2) enact only informed retraction; or 3) enact both informed retraction and elected juries. The elected jury option ultimately garnered only about 41 percent of the vote, nearly 20 percent short of the majority required for passage. In contrast, Bellamy’s amendment received nearly 65 percent of the vote. The conclusion is clear: the student body overwhelmingly believes in randomly selected juries. Now that we know that elected juries are not an option, honor and the student body should move on to consider how we can improve the current system.

Fortunately, the Honor Committee has tools it can use to begin improving the system immediately. A good start would be vigorous enforcement of absentee-juror sanctions that are already on the books; that is, referring jurors who choose to not show up to honor trials to the University Judiciary Committee. If one fails to report to a courthouse when summoned for jury duty, there are legal consequences. There is no reason why a failure to report to honor jury duty should be any different. Honor jury duty is just that: a duty that one accepts when choosing to attend this University. Once honor jury duty attendance is better enforced, honor will have the opportunity to spend more than the single hour currently provided for instructing jurors about the legal standards that they must apply. The students of this University are more than capable of being educated in the proper application of the law, if given sufficient time and instruction.

Answer #3: The Law School understands, and is part of, honor.

One of the more unfortunate claims bandied about in the course of this campaign was the argument that the Law School is somehow outside of the honor system (patently false), or doesn’t truly understand honor. After this election, hopefully that argument can be permanently laid to rest. Forty-seven percent of the Law School voted in this election, a turnout which trails only the Batten School (73 percent), the College (50 percent) and the Commerce School (49 percent). That turnout is even more impressive when one considers that nearly 10 percent of the Law School enrollment are international L.L.M. students who study at the Law School for only a year, and tend to be far less engaged in University-wide issues than their J.D. classmates.

Of course, the most compelling answer to critics of Law School involvement is that Bellamy, a member of the Law School Class of 2014, was the author of the referendum that the student body ultimately approved. Frank procured more than 2,100 student signatures to place his referendum on the ballot, and 5,433 students (about five times the total enrollment of the Law School) ultimately agreed with Frank’s belief that informed retraction was capable of standing on its own. If Frank doesn’t understand honor, then I suppose the thousands of students who agreed with him do not understand it, either. I am proud to be a member of both the Law School and the broader University community, and I hope in future referendums, these types of ad hominem attacks can be laid aside in favor of arguments on the merits of proposed reforms.

Though the future is never certain, I am greatly encouraged by the vigorous discussion this issue has received in the past few months. So long as the student body continues to be as engaged in honor as it has been over the course of this campaign, the future of honor at the University of Virginia remains bright indeed.

Ron Fisher is a second-year Law student.

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