The Judiciary is considered a branch of Duke Student Government—but this branch seems to be snapping off the tree during recent conflicts over the Judiciary’s expanded role.
The DSG Judiciary is responsible for resolving disputes that arise under the DSG constitution and bylaws, but the addition of a bill of rights to the DSG constitution last year increased the scope of their responsibility. The bill of rights, spearheaded by senior Patrick Oathout, senator for services, was added to the DSG constitution after students voted in favor of the bill on the undergraduate Young Trustee ballot last February. The bill protects students’ freedoms, including their freedom of expression, ideology, privacy and the right to vote—and the Judiciary ensures that DSG upholds these established freedoms in its legislation.
“Before the bill of rights, the Judiciary was a regulatory organization to settle disputes amongst clubs or amongst clubs and members,” said sophomore Max Schreiber, who is currently standing in as chief justice following senior Daniel Strunk's resignment. “Post bill of rights, that same role still exists, but we have the additional responsibility to protect students’ rights listed clearly in the bill of rights. Our scope has been significantly widened.”
This newfound judicial power has caused conflict between DSG and the Judiciary in two major cases during the past year: Dinner and Wang v. Board of Elections and Strunk v. DSG. Both rulings by the Judiciary opposed existing DSG legislation, creating tension between the two governing bodies.
"As a judicial body, the DSG Judiciary strikes down DSG legislation when the student government has gone too far, and in doing so protects the rights of the students,” said senior Daniel Strunk, previous chief justice. “We are not a policy making body."
Dinner and Wang v. Board of Elections
Last April, freshman Bryan Dinner, a candidate for vice president of social culture and sophomore Cynthia Wang, a candidate for senator for academic affairs, disputed DSG’s restrictions on campaigning after the election was postponed for five days, The Chronicle previously reported. The Judiciary determined that the Board of Elections could not restrict students’ freedom of speech under the new bill of rights, overturning previous BOE rulings.
Specifically, the Judiciary struck down DSG’s ability to limit the amount of time candidates can campaign.
“Putting a window on the time when you can talk about yourself as a candidate is violation of freedom of speech—we struck that window down,” Schreiber said. “That was not a law we made, we just nullified the current policy.”
He also noted concerns about a short campaign period favoring candidates with friends in DSG since familiar faces bring easier votes, while a longer campaign could give a new candidate without DSG connections more time to become recognized on campus.
Oathout—former Executive Vice President of DSG—was not convinced, however.
“It's hard to predict whether longer campaigns determine anything in an election,” Oathout wrote in an email Tuesday. “Certainly, the election should be long enough for the student body to get accurate information about all the candidates.”
The Judiciary also ruled that DSG cannot set set monetary values to campaign materials, though they can still set a budget. Members decided that DSG has the capability to create a cap for campaign budgets, not to designate the cost of certain materials.
“DSG cannot arbitrarily assign value to something that already has a market value,” Schreiber added.
Strunk v. DSG
The most recent case involving the Judiciary’s expanded scope and the bill of rights examined the burden placed on students seeking a referendum. The original law required a petition with physical signatures from two-thirds of the Senate or 15 percent of the undergraduate student body, The Chronicle previously reported.
The Judiciary struck down the bylaw requiring physical signatures, arguing that it burdens students’ freedom of speech outlined in the bill of rights. In addition, members confirmed that students can now create online petitions using Net and Unique ID verification from students.
“This is one of the first times where instead of just striking a law down, we modified current policy so that everybody could sign a petition and had the option of how to identify themselves when doing so,” Schreiber added.
DSG members, as well as two of the six justices, disagreed with the ruling. The dissident read, “A disturbing precendent has been set today. Essentially, the Judiciary is acting as a legislative body. This is both irresponsible and detrimental to governance."
Justice Catherine Fei, a freshman, wrote the dissident with Justice Joseph Denton, a sophomore. She noted that by requiring DSG to verify signatures, the Judiciary was overstepping its role.
“By mandating DSG to do something, we’re legislating from the bench,” Fei said.
Judiciary v. DSG?
These two cases in the past year involved the Judiciary ruling against a DSG body on the basis on the bill of rights – legislation created by the DSG executive committee itself. Conflict in judicial rulings has fostered animosity between the two governing bodies, Schreiber said.
“We feel absolutely hated by DSG members, especially by [the executive board]. We have a less than cordial relationship,” he said.
DSG President Stefani Jones, a senior, said she felt the Judiciary was acting within the boundaries of its power—even if she does not personally agree with the outcomes.
"I think their rulings are legitimate interpretations of the bill of rights," Jones wrote in an email Tuesday. "While I think the impacts of some of them are ultimately negative, I wouldn't fault the Judiciary itself for ruling a certain way."
Schreiber believes that the hostility drives DSG to discourage potential Judiciary applicants.
“I think DSG exec intentionally does a terrible job of advertising about the Judiciary. It is the DSG exec’s responsibility to let people know that we exist, and they have failed miserably at it,” he added.
But Oathout said that he wished more people applied to the Judiciary.
“It’s an important role, and the competition to enter should match its influence. I wish more people from non-political background and women would apply,” he added.
Moving forward, members of the Judiciary and members of DSG will need to define their independent roles and understand their ability to check each other’s power, Schreiber noted.
“Both bodies need to understand that disagreement is an OK thing,” Schreiber said. “Someone who disagrees with you is not an evil or stupid person—they just have a different opinion.”