Senate Votes Not to Overturn Judiciary Council Ruling
Issue   |   Wed, 04/23/2014 - 02:45

The Association of Amherst Students senate voted Monday night to defeat a motion that would have overturned the Judiciary Council’s ruling on the recent executive board elections complaint.

Senator and Judiciary Council member Servet Bayimli ’16 brought forward the motion a week after dissenting on the Judiciary Council’s decision to dismiss the complaint. Chloe McKenzie ’14, the member of the acting Judiciary Council who abstained from the vote, joined Bayimli in presenting the motion to the senate.

The April 10 complaint asked the Judiciary Council to determine whether any of the candidates in the presidential and vice presidential runoffs had exceeded the $45 spending limit for the campaign. The Judiciary Council ruled that none of the candidates had gone over the limit for campaign expenditures, defining campaign expenditures as “those campaign materials visible to the Amherst College community in public spaces.”

Bayimli and McKenzie disagreed with the Judiciary Council members who voted to define campaign expenditures in this way.

“I dissented one, because of the linguistic issues, because it was a misinterpretation of the term campaign expenditure,” Bayimli said in an interview. “Second, I dissented on that definition because of the cultural implications of the definition.”

Bayimli and McKenzie argued that the definition discriminates against candidates from low-income families.

“By this interpretation of the term campaign expenditure, I could technically hire an elections consultant that charges $1500 an hour, and as long as I meet with them in my private room, I could only report zero dollars of campaign expenditures,” Bayimli said. “Or if I printed a thousand posters, and I slid them under people’s doors, I have to report zero dollars in campaign expenditures because those doors are private spaces. That’s just a privilege that students here may not have.”

This definition of campaign expenditures proved controversial because Amani Ahmed ’15, the winner of the presidential race, revealed to the Judiciary Council that she spent $20.35 on posters that she printed but never hung up. Because the Judiciary Council ultimately defined campaign expenditures as materials visible in public, it did not consider this sum to be part of her campaign expenditures.

However, Bayimli and McKenzie said that campaign expenditures should include materials that are printed for the intent of promoting a candidate, even if those materials are never used. Ahmed spent $39.40 on campaign materials she did use in addition to the $20.35 on unused posters, meaning that according to Bayimli and McKenzie’s definition, she would have exceeded the spending limit.

“A campaign expenditure, in my mind, is something that is used to affect election results and to affect people’s voting,” Ahmed said. “If those posters were never used, if they were never put up, and if they were never visible to Amherst students, then I don’t think that they should be counted as campaign expenditures.”

Ahmed said that she did not use the original posters because the day the posters were being printed, Lindon Chen ’15 volunteered to be her campaign manager, and he convinced her to change the style of her campaign materials.

“I told her to not use those posters, and that I would make her other posters,” Chen said.

Despite the possible implications for Ahmed’s campaign, Bayimli and McKenzie said that their concern was about the larger implications of the Judiciary Council’s definition, and not about any specific candidate.

“We are not here because we support or condemn one candidate over the other,” McKenzie said at the meeting. “We did not vote for nor endorse either candidate. We are not asking you to disqualify or impeach Amani.”

Peter Crane ’15, Ahmed’s opponent in the presidential runoff, confirmed that his campaign was not involved in the movement to overturn the Judiciary Council’s ruling.

Many of the senators and other students present at the meeting agreed that the Judiciary Council’s definition of campaign expenditures was problematic. While some students felt that the senate should overturn the Judiciary Council’s decision, others argued that the ruling should stand and that the issue of defining campaign expenditures should be resolved in a future constitutional amendment.

At the meeting, Liya Rechtman ’14 spoke for the majority of acting Judiciary Council members who voted to dismiss the complaint. Rechtman, who is also a senator, said that the Judiciary Council’s definition of campaign expenditures applied only to this particular complaint, and that going forward the senate should focus on amending the constitution rather than overturning the Judiciary Council’s decision.

“I think that this campaign complaint exposed certain fundamental flaws in our constitution,” Rechtman said.

According to the AAS constitution, “any campaign item promoting a candidate” counts as a campaign expenditure. Some students present at the meeting believed that this language includes campaign materials that are printed but not used, while others argued that the language could exclude unused campaign materials.

“Clearly not everyone is on the same page about how the constitution should be interpreted,” Ahmed said. “I think what the JC ruling and the dissent involved in the JC ruling reveal is that there is ambiguity there.”

Ultimately, the motion failed because only 20 out of 31 senators voted to overturn the Judiciary Council’s ruling. Overturning a Judiciary Council ruling requires the consent of three-fourths of voting senators. Eight senators voted against the motion, and three abstained.

After the motion’s defeat, Bayimli and McKenzie submitted a referendum to the AAS that proposes a constitutional amendment redefining campaign expenditures.

“The campaign expenditures definition we have comes from Title 2, Section 431 of the Federal Election Campaigns Law,” Bayimli said. “The definition we proposed is very similar to that language with a few additions.”

The referendum will also ask students to vote on whether they support the Judiciary Council’s ruling. Tomi Williams ’16, the current Judiciary Council chair, said that if students vote against the ruling, the ruling will be voided, but there will be no impact on the election results. Williams said that the primary impact of voiding the ruling would be a symbolic rejection of the council’s decision.

The student body will vote on the referendum in a special election on Friday.

Also at issue in the debate on overturning the decision was the question of whether the Judiciary Council is fundamentally an investigative body. Members of the Judiciary Council disagreed over how far the council should have gone to determine the validity of candidates’ reported expenditures.

Bayimli said that the Judiciary Council should have conducted an independent investigation to evaluate whether the candidates’ submitted receipts were accurate.

“We need to make sure that all the evidence we receive is valid, or else what’s the point?” Bayimli said. “There are inherent problems with the truthfulness of testimony, especially in an adversarial process like being in a Judiciary Council hearing and trying to win an election.”

Other acting members of the Judiciary Council, such as Allan Landman ’14, believed that such an act falls outside of the scope of the council’s powers.

“People give us the evidence; we don’t go and get the evidence,” Landman said.

Additionally, the Judiciary Council argued over whether it was appropriate for the council to have called Ahmed back for further questioning after she submitted her receipts at the council’s open hearing. In a private meeting after the open hearing on April 13, the council called Ahmed back because McKenzie thought she remembered seeing another large campaign poster that Ahmed had not reported.

During this discussion, the council asked Ahmed whether there had been any election posters for which she did not submit receipts. Although the council determined that McKenzie had been mistaken about seeing another large poster, it was during this time that Ahmed revealed she had spent $20.35 on posters she did not use.

Bayimli and Landman said that it was unfair for the Judiciary Council to question Ahmed in a private meeting after it had already questioned her in an open hearing, particularly because none of the other candidates were called back for further questioning.

Finally, AAS representatives and students at the meeting debated whether candidates should have been asked to waive their federal rights by submitting receipts. The Judiciary Council asked candidates to prove that they had complied with campaign regulations, but did not specify that they should submit their receipts.

Requiring candidates to submit receipts would have meant requesting that they waive the privacy rights guaranteed to them by the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA.

One of the original complainants, Joshua Ferrer ’17, was among the students at the meeting who said it would have been reasonable for the Judiciary Council to ask candidates to waive these rights.

“If you are a public candidate, you’re opening yourself up to public scrutiny,” he said in an interview. “That includes campaign contributions. You’re held to a different standard.”

Rechtman was among those who disagreed.

“Someone running in a federal election knows they will be asked to waive federal rights, but none of the candidates here knew they would be asked to waive federal rights,” she said at the meeting.

Rechtman and others at the meeting also said they believed that asking students to waive their privacy rights could set a dangerous precedent, and that such a decision should not be taken lightly.

The original complaint also included a recommendation that the senate require candidates to submit their campaign expenditures after every election, although that recommendation was not discussed in detail on Monday night.

“While we have this clear limit on expenditures, there is no way for the senate to be making sure that the candidates actually comply,” said Pierre Joseph ’15, one of the complainants. “The only way to do that is to file a complaint with the JC.”

Ahmed and Bayimli both said in interviews that they hoped the senate would turn its attention to a more thorough examination of campaign finances in the future.

“As president, and as someone who is going to be a part of senate in the future, that will be one of the first things that I want to change,” Ahmed said. “I want to make sure that the student body is on the same page about how campaigns should be run, and I want to make sure that students are happy about the way candidates are running their campaigns.”