Letter to the Editor: On the trials and tribulations of the new Judicial Board

Dear Vassar Community,

 

Because many people are not even aware that the Judicial Board exists, let me begin by answering the question, “What is the Judicial Board?” The new Judicial Board began operations last fall, adding Class Justice Annie O’Reilly ’25 and myself to its ranks. As The Miscellany News article from June 6, 2021 “VSA ressurrects previously dissolved Judicial Board” explained, the original Judicial Board had been dissolved in 2019 due to inactivity but was recently reinstated after the Senate found impeachment to be procedurally impossible without it. 

The full scope of the Judicial Board’s powers can be found on the VSA website, but its main duties, which are modeled on those of the Supreme Court of the United States, are to ensure that the VSA Senate, as well as the legislation it passes, adheres to the VSA Governing Documents through judicial review, and to adjudicate disputes regarding the constitutionality of action or inaction.

Have a complaint? Any member or body of the Association may file a case against any elected or appointed member of the VSA, any student organization that is officially recognized by the VSA and any officer of a student organization that is officially recognized by the VSA. 

First, go to https://vsa.vassar.edu/judicial/. From there, you can file a dispute, submit evidence, register a witness and request representation. Once you have filed a dispute, the Judicial Board will review your complaint and vote on whether to hear your case. If the Board votes in favor of hearing your case, you (the complainant) and the person you have filed a dispute against (the respondent) will be asked to submit evidence. Once the Judicial Board has reviewed the evidence submitted by both parties, the Judicial Board will notify you of their ruling or, if there is no definitive solution, the Judicial Board will move to trial. You will be notified of the trial date, which will also be scheduled on the Judicial Board’s Calendar. Opinions of the Judicial Board can be found on the VSA website.

So what is my role on the Judicial Board? As the Judicial Board Clerk, I report directly to the Chair of the Judicial Board, maintain the Archive of the Judicial Board and assist the justices where needed. I also sit on the Communications Committee to oversee public dissemination of all Judicial Board Rulings, the Joint Communications-Operations Committee to serve as a liaison between the VSA and the Judicial Board, and committees that the Board is reviewing. 

Because I am a liaison between the VSA and the Judicial Board, I have had to navigate how my actions as both part of the Board as well as part of the Joint Communications-Operations Committee affect each. The justices have faced similar challenges in navigating their relation to the VSA. Chief Justice Nicole Pihlstrom ’22 explained, “It has been difficult at times to determine how the resurrected Judicial Board fits into the current political climate of the VSA and the reaches of its power—that is, ensuring that our presence can inform positive changes within the VSA while also navigating our integration into an already established institution.” She noted that, in addition, “mediating conflict within these bounds has been a precarious balance to achieve and maintain.” 

Adding to what Pihlstrom said, Class Justice Maxwell Newman ’24 commented, “The Judicial Board is a largely reactive body. The powers of the judicial board can really only be enacted when issues are brought to us by students challenging some legislation or action. As the Judicial Board moves forward, we hope Vassar students will continue to be critical of actions in their organizations and in the VSA, and we encourage them to bring any and all injustices to the Board.”

Class Justice Ava Thompson ’22 noted that another challenge has been “Navigating grounds when conflict arises and having the parties understand our purview.” In an email Newman sent out after Trial 2122-4/5, he clarified the extent of the Judicial Board’s power, “We retain the power to order the Senate to issue a censure or sanction against [a member or body of the Association], instruct the Finance Committee to reduce a student organization’s allocation during the budgeting process, instruct [a member or body of the Association] to complete a relevant training, overrule a rule, order procedure or action of a student organization that is officially recognized by the Association, [and] impeach and remove from office any officer of a student organization.” I include this to inform readers of the powers of the Judicial Board as Newman’s statement was made in response to calls for the Judicial Board to order the respondent organization to create an anonymous feedback form, which VSA Vice President Ryan Mazurkiewicz ’22 clarified was not within the Board’s purview.

Reflecting on this trial, Pihlstrom recalled, “This case had a lot of political tension that could have quickly become the main focus of the case. However, our role as the Judicial Board within it was to look at how the situation unfolded and what was communicated prior to the incident in making our ruling in addition to its impacts on the affected communities. While this was a high tension trial to handle for our very first, the Judicial Board did a stellar job mediating and resolving the conflict at hand and helped better define our jurisdiction and powers.”

I asked Pihlstrom if the Judicial Board fulfilled the goals that she had set out for it when she was interviewed for the Misc last June. She replied, “To the extent this year allowed, yes. Through major structural changes to the VSA, the Judicial Board has offered students a previously unavailable pathway to be a part of the changes being made. While impeachment, thankfully, has not been brought to the table this year, the Judicial Board has set a strong foundation to handle any future conflict that may arise within the VSA.” 

Class Justice Allie Finio ’23 concurred, noting, “At the beginning of the year, we set out to establish the Judicial Board as a tool for improving the VSA’s efficiency and efficacy. Throughout the year, we have ensured the constitutionality of the legislative amendments proposed by the Senate and solved several important conflicts that arose amongst organizations.” 

With elections quickly approaching and two justices graduating this May, the Judicial Board expects to see new faces in the 2022-2023 academic year. For those new members and for the Judicial Board going forward, this is what wisdom the inaugural justices have to impart, “Ensure you have a strong foundational knowledge of how the VSA operates and ensure you maintain an unbiased view when handling conflict. The Bylaws and Constitution innately leave much up to interpretation and thus you will have to rely on past precedents to make decisions or set new ones going forward,” (Chief Justice Pihlstrom) and, “Read materials carefully and listen to what others in the conflict have to say. Every issue has two sides” (Class Justice Finio).

To anyone interested in clerking for the Judicial Board, I highly recommend applying. Clerking for the Judicial Board has given me valuable insight into judicial proceedings and internal politics that I can carry with me into a future career in law, and more importantly it has been one of the highlights of my first year here at Vassar. A piece of advice for future clerks: learn how to hyperlink! The justices will really appreciate it.

 

Kindest of regards,

Sarah Kageyama ’25

VSA Judicial Board Clerk

 

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