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University Judiciary Committee in focus

Following recent Cavalier Daily case, law professors, Committee chair discuss questions of jurisdiction, precedent, room for improvement

The University Judiciary Committee usually acts behind closed doors. But earlier this month when the five members of The Cavalier Daily managing board faced UJC charges for allegedly violating the confidentiality of an honor proceeding, coverage in The Cavalier Daily, The Washington Post and other publications called attention to UJC procedures.

When Cavalier Daily Editor-in-Chief Jason Ally’s case went to trial Oct. 18, a UJC trial panel ruled that the Committee did not have jurisdiction over the case, as its constitution states the UJC “shall not have jurisdiction over … the exercise of journalistic and editorial functions by student groups.” The UJC does not operate on precedent, and in Ally’s case, the trial panel issued a decision about a constitutional matter at trial, raising questions about how the UJC interprets its constitution.

The constitution and jurisdictionnThe UJC’s constitution defines the body and establishes its powers. As laid out in the document, the main operating and governing body of the University judiciary system acts under the authority delegated to it by the Board of Visitors in 1955 to uphold the Standards of Conduct.

Composed of 23 representatives from each of the 11 graduate and undergraduate schools of the University, the UJC “hears cases of alleged misconduct” by students or student groups brought to its attention by “any member of the academic or civic community,” according to the UJC’s website.

As a result, the UJC has the power to “investigate and hear all complaints referred or appealed to it in order to determine whether the accused is guilty of student misconduct as defined by University authorities,” according to its constitution.

Article II, Section D of the constitution lists the committee’s “Jurisdiction Restriction,” naming six situations the UJC “shall not have jurisdiction over.”

The constitution does not list procedures for judging when the Committee has jurisdiction over a case, but the committee’s by-laws establish policies for determining jurisdiction.

According to the by-laws, “If the [UJC] Chairperson feels that any case is not within the jurisdiction of the Committee … s/he shall recommend its dismissal to the Executive Committee, which can dismiss the case by a majority vote.” Additionally, in the article on trial procedures, the by-laws state that “[w]hen … the Committee has determined that it has jurisdiction, the Committee shall convene within a reasonable time for a trial of the accused.”

UJC Chair Victoria Marchetti noted in an email that all cases do not automatically proceed to trial. She could not be reached for comment to elaborate on this screening process.

Ally’s case demonstrates that trial panels may also rule on jurisdiction, however.

Law Prof. Kent Sinclair said though this practice differs from standard practice in the United States court system, it is not procedurally problematic.

“In the court system, if there was a jurisdictional problem that would normally be decided first, and if the deciding body thought that it did not have jurisdiction it would not comment on guilt or innocence … but the legal norms, the typical way of proceeding in our courts, are not binding in our judiciary committee,” he said.

Sinclair cautioned that he is not knowledgeable about the UJC and said he did not want to criticize the body. He provided his perspective on how a student judiciary body might consider issues of jurisdiction.

If there is not “a procedural set of rules that would bear on” when jurisdiction is determined, “then it’s kind of a matter of logic that you wouldn’t want to waste everyone’s time by presenting a question that is outside the power of the deciding body,” Sinclair said. “That’s an imposition on the person or group charged, and it’s an imposition on the judiciary committee. So it would make sense as a sort of rule of thumb to resolve those first, and most adjudicatory bodies in the United States would do that, but there’s nothing that makes that binding on the Judiciary Committee.”

PrecedentnAnother key difference between the UJC and the U.S. court system is that the Committee does not operate on precedent.

Marchetti said in an email that there are “many reasons” for this policy, the first of which comes from the UJC’s goals. The Committee aims to “promote and maintain respect, safety and freedom … [and] is meant to be an educational experience,” she said. “In keeping with that ideal, it would be ineffective to use a precedent system.”

Another reason for this policy is that “each case is different,” Marchetti said.

Finally, she said the Committee’s policy on precedent enables it to involve the larger University community and adapt.

“By electing a representative to the Committee, a student indicates that they trust this representative to make informed decisions that are in line with their views,” Marchetti explained. “If the UJC operated solely on a system of precedent, it would remove the voice of the student body. Moreover, it would leave little room for improvement or change.”

Law Prof. Frederick Schauer said in an email that there are “good arguments” for and against following precedent.

“Adopting the following of precedent as a method of operation … is hardly a universal norm in adjudicative procedures,” he said.

Sinclair said a precedent system would be difficult to implement in a student judiciary body.

“There’s no place where decisions like this are written down; there’s no … ruling that binds the future based on this decision,” he said. “It’s kind of inherent in a student body resolving complaints that when the next dispute comes down the pipeline in future years, it’s not realistically going to be able to cite [prior decisions].”

Competing modelsnThe Student Supreme Court at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill is moving toward a system of precedent, however.

Chris Phillips, an associate justice for North Carolina’s Student Supreme Court, said the court is in the process of restructuring its operations so that precedents from years past have bearings on decisions. Phillips said North Carolina’s court currently uses precedent for cases which are heard during the same court-year.

“It’s a device used because we don’t have the records [from past courts],” Phillips said, referring to the court’s current use of limited precedent. “Precedent is the base-facto rule to have consistency in our courtroom.”

North Carolina’s court is lobbying for permission to pursue a system bound by yearly “vertical” precedent – looking at past rulings from any year – to provide “consistency in our rulings” throughout the years, Phillips said. Such a system would ensure consistency while allowing future courts to overturn previous rulings, he explained.

Raj Clark, a member of Hampden-Sydney College’s Student Justice System, said the question of consistency “comes up a lot in our discussions of how the court works.”

Hampden-Sydney College’s Student Justice System, like the UJC, does not operate on a system of precedent.

“It really rests on the Court Chairman and the older members of the court who have been on the court for multiple years to maintain a level of consistency,” Clark said.

UJC efforts for consistencynTo create consistency in judiciary proceedings, the UJC builds institutional memory through a month-long transition period after elections in the spring which allows outgoing UJC members to advise members of the new Committee, Marchetti said.

“The UJC deals with turnover, institutional memory and consistency through extensive training,” she said.

In addition, members of the executive committee have access to previous case files.

“They are free and encouraged to look through case files to get a general idea of typical sanctions and trial outcomes,” Marchetti said.

Room for improvementnMarchetti said “there is always room for clarification and improvement,” particularly in regard to the UJC’s governing documents.

“The UJC executive committee is currently discussing ways to make both our constitution and bylaws more comprehensive,” Marchetti said. “We believe these changes will make our procedures more transparent to the student body.”

Marchetti did not go into specifics about what changes the executive committee is considering, since those ideas have not yet been presented to the Committee at-large, she said.


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