Separation of powers in DSG
The Duke Student Government Judiciary has recently been growing in influence. The addition of the Bill of Rights and the efforts of individuals such as former Chief Justice Daniel Strunk, a senior, have expanded the scope, responsibility and power of the institution. Recent standoffs between the Judiciary and DSG Senate, however, raise important questions about the appropriate relationship between these two branches of power.
Recent cases have thrust the Judiciary into the spotlight. The Judiciary’s decision to reallocate over $40,000 from dechartered student groups to UCAE and the subsequent refusal to hear a case from DSG has made the Judiciary’s growing influence extremely apparent. This case is the latest in which the Judiciary has overruled previous DSG practices. In Daniel Strunk v. DSG, the Judiciary ruled that petitions with electronic signatures must be accepted in addition to those with physical signatures. In Dinner and Wang v. Board of Elections, the Judiciary applied the Bill of Rights to remove time restrictions on campus campaigns.
Without imposing judgment on the case outcomes, we support the increased power of the Judiciary as a check against the Senate. Though we have questioned the efficacy of DSG while endorsing DSG candidates, we firmly believe in the importance of a system of checks and balances that the Judiciary provides. According to its charter, the Judiciary “has constitutional and statutory oversight over the Senate, the Executive Board, SOFC, the YTNC, the Board of Elections, individual student groups and any other organization affiliated with DSG.” It serves a role necessary in any form of government—ensuring that the other branches adhere to their governing documents.
Current practices, however, undermine a robust system of checks and balances. Members of the DSG Judiciary must be reappointed every year by the Senate, which allows senators to influence the composition of the judiciary based on political disagreements. The recent reappointment process of current Chief Justice Max Schreiber, a sophomore, is one example. In a vote of 23 to 21—with four abstentions—the Senate decided not to reappoint Schreiber, citing as one of the primary complaints his role in handling the decision to reallocate funds from dechartered student groups. We see this decision as a problematic influence of political motives that undercuts the separation of powers. Judicial competence and qualifications, not political ideation, should be the criterion for judicial appointments.
One remedy to ensure clearer separation of powers between the two branches of DSG is to eliminate the reappointment process for Judiciary members. Under this proposed system, senators would retain power to impeach—by two-thirds majority—Judiciary members who act inappropriately, show insufficient commitment or are otherwise unqualified. The impeachment process establishes a higher threshold for removal, which would ensure that justices are only impeached for the proper reasons.
We have seen an encouraging increase in engagement in campus politics this past year. Over half the student body casted ballots in the Young Trustee elections—a marked increased compared to recent years. Voter turnout to elect next year’s DSG president, vice presidents and to vote down the 40 Percent Plan increased by almost 1,500 since last year, reaching 3,742 students. In the midst of this trend toward greater student interest in campus politics and the growing role of the Judiciary, it is increasingly important to establish and ensure a clear separation between the Judiciary and the branch of DSG it is supposed to oversee.