By Maya Brown and Sherin Samuel
Stony Brook University’s Undergraduate Student Government (USG) is proposing to get rid of its judicial branch in a constitutional referendum that was announced on Saturday, Nov. 9.
Voting opened at 12 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 11, and will close on Friday, Nov. 15. A town hall on the referendum will be hosted on Wednesday, Nov. 13 in Frey 102 during Campus Life Time. The Election Board will also be available for in-person polling on Tuesday, Nov. 12 from 12-3 p.m.; Wednesday, 2:30-4 p.m.; and Friday, 12-2:30 p.m. in the Student Activities Center (SAC) lobby.
In the USG Constitutional Referendum Cheat Sheet, USG argues that removing the judiciary branch will improve “operational efficiency, cost-benefit of payroll, lack of constitutional checks/balances for accountability, and legal liability issues of hearing cases and FERPA laws.”
“The judiciary has no formal application process and there was no procedure to keep them accountable,” Shaheer Khan, senior political science major and USG president, said.
Unlike the legislative and executive branches, which consist of elected positions, judiciary members are nominated by the president and approved by the senate.
Although the terms of the legislative and executive branches finish at the end of the spring semester, judiciary members continue in their positions until “the end of the second subsequent academic year” after their initial appointment. According to the rough draft of the constitution, USG said the judiciary is seen as a “highly concentrated power.”
Andrew Machkasov, a former USG senator who graduated in May, argued against this point.
“The key is to make the judiciary independent of the politicization of the elections,” he said. “The fact that they’re independent and not up for reappointment every year makes them more impartial since they won’t be likely to shift their vote in exchange for reappointment.”
According to the current version of the constitution, the duties and responsibilities of the judiciary branch include jurisdiction over the impeachment of members of the legislative and executive branches. The proposed constitution would delegate impeachment procedures to the legislative and executive branches.
Machkasov said that the argument that there is not a sufficient check on the judiciary does not mean that there should be no judiciary. Rather, he argued, there should be better checks on the judiciary.
In a Facebook post, Machkasov wrote, “There are plenty of checks: the Justices are appointed by the President (check by Executive), confirmed by 2/3 of the Senate (check by Senate), and can be impeached and removed from office by a 3/4 vote of the Senate (final check after the members are in office). The judiciary itself serves, by virtue of being a non-elected entity, as a last-resort check on the elected officials.”
He argued that the current checks and balances are in place to ensure that everyone is doing their job properly.
“If they [the legislative and executive branches] are effective at checking each other, the judiciary won’t need to intervene, but the past year [has] taught me that the third branch is very needed,” he said.
During his tenure last year, Machkasov sued to overturn a Senate confirmation of former Chief Justice Aravinth Pushparaj after he went more than a year in office without confirmation. The USG constitution at the time required the chief justice to be confirmed within the academic year they were appointed. The USG judiciary unanimously voted to remove Pushparaj from his position in April.
Khan said that eliminating the judiciary branch doesn’t mean that USG goes unchecked. He pointed out that they have several professional staff members “making sure that we’re doing what’s right and accountable.”
Additionally, he argued that cutting the judiciary branch will save costs. According to Khan, running the judiciary branch costs more than $10,000 per academic year.
“Since they were at an ad-hoc basis, there was no functional work,” he said. “There is no reason for people to be on payroll. We want to use our time and the student activity fee more responsibly.”
He believes the money can be used instead for funding additional clubs and USG-hosted events on campus, equating the branch’s administration fees to the cost of First Night Out.
All judiciary members are currently required to hold at least two office hours — defined as any tasks in accordance with an active brief filed with the Supreme Court — per week. The chief justice must hold at least four. Like the executive council and senate, they are currently paid a stipend for completed office hours. They are not paid for more than the minimum hours required.
Justin Ullman, junior economics and political science major and Vice President of Academic Affairs in USG, said that the executive council sat down with members from the judiciary branch to talk about the role that they’ve had in the previous years.
“[We] talked about how, number one, they haven’t had much work to do; number two, there is no system of checks to make sure that they complete that work and number three, the work that they’re supposedly completing they’re getting paid for,” Ullman said.
He added that the creation of the judiciary branch was solely because USG was attempting to mimic the structure of the U.S. federal government’s system of checks and balances.
“[So] they added the judiciary, but nobody added checks and balances on the judiciary, only the other way around,” Ullman said.
According to the current version of the constitution, the associate justices of the judiciary are responsible for reviewing club constitutions to ensure that they are following all legally binding documents of USG. In the rough draft for the proposed constitution, an endnote reads, “In practice, the USG Judiciary does not regularly view compliance of clubs to their constitutions. The Department of Student Engagement & Activities does.”
If the new constitution is approved, it will solely be the responsibility of the Department of Student Engagement & Activities.
Isaiah Momplaisir, a senior chemistry major and associate justice, explained that though it is not explicitly stated in the constitution, over time the judiciary branch began checking club constitutions after the Department of Student Engagement & Activities finished looking over a club’s constitution.
Stony Brook graduate Thor Hawrey, who was an associate justice last year, said that in his first year on the court in 2017-2018, they were reviewing “dozens of constitutions.”
“So when I was on the court for the first year, we reviewed dozens of constitutions that year. There was actually work to be done, we were able to fill the required time each week, you know, the required office hours,” Hawrey said.
Things didn’t change until last year.
“There was some weird issue where we weren’t getting constitutions, but we knew, especially myself, I knew that there were clubs that wanted to be recognized. So I know that there wasn’t a lack of constitutions, there was just some weird break in the chain where it wasn’t being handed to the judiciary,” he said.
Momplaisir said that it would be more sensible if justices were solely paid for the cases they were working on.
Although he said that he understands there needs to be judicial reform, Momplaisir said he was “blindsided” by the Executive Council’s idea to get rid of the judiciary as a whole. He said he wasn’t informed that they were thinking of getting rid of it completely until a Sept. 25 executive council meeting.
Momplaisir thought that he was going into the meeting to talk about what the judicial branch was going to look like in the future; he was shocked when he found out it was the opposite.
“In my mind, we’re going to have a conversation… [but] one person had already looked at the constitution and removed every time the judiciary was mentioned, and other people were already discussing what USG would look like without the judiciary,” Momplaisir said.
Hawrey said that during the two years he played a role in the court, “there was no real effort to make the judiciary a better organization, a better branch, and some of the pushback came from the EC [executive council] itself.”
Momplaisir pointed out that the decision will interfere with the student government’s system of checks and balances.
When Momplaisir voiced his concern at the meeting, “they said that they can just check each other anyways, but like, y’all are so close… you are significantly closer than we are, so it definitely wouldn’t be the same unbiased level.”
The Senate and the executive branch meet on a regular basis, while the judiciary branch intentionally stays outside those meetings in an effort to remain unbiased, according to Momplaisir.
Hawrey emphasized that the judiciary is also responsible for making sure that amendments and elections are fair — eliminating the branch would mean that “USG won’t be held accountable.”
Hawrey argued that the branch is underutilized by students because it is not effectively marketed the same way as the executive and legislative branches.
“Students don’t know that they have the resources of the Supreme Court to go to arbitrate issues that they have with their clubs constitutions,” Hawrey said.
He also criticized the USG marketing team for encouraging students to vote yes in the referendum on Facebook.
“The USG marketing team is supporting a yes vote for the amendments, which is bizarre… a body that is holding elections should not try and sway voters to vote a certain way,” he said, calling the referendum a real “power grab.”
Hawrey further emphasized that it is a “huge problem” for all the different amendments to be conjoined into one vote.
“There are some changes in there that are definitely needed and that the students will want, but they have to juggle that with the really bad stuff,” he said.
In contrast to Hawrey and Momplaisir, however, former judiciary member and senior political science and economics major, Eric Wagner, said that he agreed with the proposed change to get rid of the judiciary.
“We considered several reforms, but after a while it became clear that the judiciary itself has fundamental issues that couldn’t be fixed,” he said.
According to Wagner, who is currently a USG senator, judicial appointments are currently two years long “to serve as a check and keep them from being removed for ruling against the other two branches, but it also means that inactive Justices get to stay on there without any recourse and pick up a $100 payroll check every two weeks.”
He added that Justices aren’t “uniquely” equipped to hear student cases either, since they don’t have law degrees and many don’t have background knowledge on how USG functions. He said that last year, when he was confirmed as a Justice, other people were confirmed who hadn’t read the constitution yet.
“There is no reason to give those people unchecked power over the two elected branches when they have no way to demonstrate they’re more qualified to interpret the Constitution,” he said.
Additionally, the separation between the judiciary branch and other branches makes it harder to communicate, he said. “This was the case last year when the judiciary couldn’t approve club constitutions in a timely manner and couldn’t get the case decided early enough.”
Khan said he has been working on the constitutional referendum since he took office, and USG has been working collectively on it for the past five to six months.
“If the referendum passes, that means the judiciary will no longer exist. If it is voted against, it will continue. We need buy-in from the entire student body to make that change,” Khan said.
Brianne Ledda contributed reporting.