Student Court Holds its First Trial of the Year, Decides that Complete Student Council Election Results Must be Released
On Wednesday, May 10, the Wilf Campus Student Court heard the case of Rubinstein v. Canvassing Committee. On April 27, the day after the recent student council elections, YC Senior David Rubinstein asked the Canvassing Committee whether they intended to release the complete results of the elections. When the Committee demurred, Rubinstein sent an email to the justices of the Student Court and the Chair of the Canvassing Committee stating that he wished to sue for the complete results.
During the student council elections on April 26, the students voted to ratify an amendment to the Wilf Campus Student Constitution requiring the canvassing committee to publicize the details of the election results. The amendment states, “The Canvassing Committee shall publicize the winners of the elections as soon as possible. Within three days of the election, the Canvassing Committee will disclose the data of regarding numbers of voter turnout, the amount of votes cast per race as well as per candidate on the ballot.” In his suit, Rubinstein argued that this amendment should apply to the results of the election in which it was ratified. Student Court Justice Elie Lipnik announced the trial in an email sent to the student body on the day before the trial.
The trial began at 6pm in the presidential conference room in Belfer Hall (room 1214). Rubinstein represented himself, sitting at the opposite end of the table from the head of the Canvassing Committee and his representatives students Avi Lent and Daniel Geller. The five justices on the student court -- Elie Lipnik, Yair Strachman, Adam Kramer, Avi Rabinovitch, Justice Pro-Tempore Mason Wedgle, and Chief Justice Yossi Hoffman -- sat in a row on the opposite side of the table. More than twenty students sat around the periphery of the room to the observe the trial. Tami Adelson, the Program Director of YU’s Office of Student Life, was present, as was Jonathan Schwab, the Wilf Campus Associate Director of University Housing and Residence Life.
The proceedings began with Rubinstein’s opening statement. He argued that since the amendment has been ratified, it is now in full force and therefore obligates the canvassing committee to release the complete results of the recent elections. He claimed that the “respondent has trampled on the glory of the democratic process by withholding, suppressing, and concealing the results of the election. Our right as electors is being denied by the Canvassing Committee, the very governmental organ charged with stewarding our sacred democratic process.”
Counsel for the defense Avi Lent then delivered his opening remarks. Lent argued that applying this amendment to the recent elections would constitute applying it retroactively. Since the amendment was not in effect when the voting took place for the recent election, it does not apply to the results. “The precedent this court would set by allowing retroactive legislation to take effect would open up the door to all sorts of potential abuses of power in the future,” Lent later explained. “Therefore, let the court make an example today, that no legislation, passed by either the students or the administration, should even be imposed on anyone in this university ex-post-facto.” Moreover, he argued, the canvassing committee should not release the complete results since the candidates were not aware that they would be released and therefore might be embarrassed should the data indicate a landslide victory.
The plaintiff then called its witnesses. Rubinstein first summoned Manny Dahari, a YU student from Yemen who testified about the importance of transparency in student government based on his family’s experience under the corrupt Yemeni government and his own experience in the more transparent student government of Loyola University. Student Ben Strachman testified next. After being established by the plaintiff as an expert in political science, he similarly spoke to the importance of transparency in government. Finally, the prosecution called on Itamar Lustiger to testify. Lustiger ran for SOY President in last year’s elections with the hopes of changing the religious orientation of SOY, but was defeated. As Lustiger approached the stand, student Doron Levine broke out in adulatory song; Rubinstein immediately asked permission to approach the bench and presented a motion to have Levine removed from the room since he was “obstructing justice.” His motion was declined. Lustiger then proceeded with his testimony, stating that, though he lost the SOY election, he would like for the results from last year’s election to be released. He explained that he and his followers are interested to know how successful the Lustiger campaign was, as it would allow them to deduce whether similar campaigns might gain traction in future elections.
The defense then called its witnesses. First, Shua Brick, the current SOY President and writer of the amendment, testified that he intended for the amendment to take effect beginning next year’s election. Then Syms Student Council President Akiva Koppel testified that, though there was no understanding among the Syms Student Council that this amendment would apply to the recent election, he believes that the complete results should be released since transparency in student government is critical.
Rabbi Josh Weisberg, the Wilf Campus Director of the Office of Student Life, was called to the stand next. His testimony quickly became testy, as he confirmed that the Office of Student Life, not the Canvassing Committee, holds the complete results of the student council elections. When asked whether he would follow the directive of the court should it rule that the results must be released, Weisberg equivocated. He stated that the Office of Student Life is not necessarily bound by the student constitution and explained that, for reasons unknown, the Canvassing Committee has historically allowed the Office of Student Life to run the elections. Thus the entire premise of the trial was brought into question, since the administration might very well choose to not release the results irrespective of the court’s decision.
For its final witness, the defense called Rubinstein himself to the stand, handing him a printed copy of an opinion article that he recently wrote for The Commentator. In this article, Rubinstein claimed that the Wilf Campus Student Constitution is invalid. Counsel for the defense Avi Lent asked Rubinstein to read some selected quotes from the article. After Rubinstein read these quotes, Lent questioned whether the court should take Rubinstein’s suit seriously given that he recently questioned the very legitimacy of the court. Rubinstein responded that though he stands by his argument in the article, he believes that the court will rule objectively and set aside any statements that are unconnected to the specifics of the case at hand.
One major point of contention during the trial was whether the candidates’ feelings are relevant to this issue. The defense claimed that the complete results should not be released since the candidates who lost might be embarrassed should the results become public. In support of this claim, the defense submitted a document to the court with the results of a survey that was sent to the candidates, asking whether they would like for the complete results to be released. Though most of the candidates responded that they were comfortable with the results being released, three candidates responded that they would prefer for the results to remain secret. Rubinstein objected to the admission of this evidence, countering that since the Student Court is only authorized to rule on this legal issue based on the text of the constitution, the feelings of the candidates should play no role in the decision.
At around 7pm, the trial ended. Since it had stretched on for longer than expected, both parties agreed that closing statements would be submitted to the court in writing. And though the defense had stated in its opening statement that it intended to call student Doron Levine to testify, Levine’s testimony was skipped over in the interest of time. Both counsels submitted their closing statements later that night.
Parliamentarian Betzalel Fischman was present at the trial. The Wilf Student Constitution (II.9) stipulates, “The Parliamentarian shall serve as an advisor to the General Assembly on Constitutional and parliamentary matters.” In an email sent to the court soon after the trial, Fischman urged the justices to properly understand their role, stating, “the court should consider carefully the difference between a judicial body and a legislative body. Seemingly many of the arguments of the case were treating the court as the latter.” He similarly expressed concern about the process leading up to the trial, questioning the court’s decision to require students interested in attending the trial to request permission to attend through a google form. Since the court decided that this trial was to be an open trial, there should have been no justification required from students in order to attend.
Chief Justice Jonathan Hoffman was pleased with the proceedings of the case. “It was a great example of students defending their rights and taking advantage of the democratic processes offered,” he said.
On Sunday, May 14, the court ruled in favor of Rubinstein. In a decision released to The Commentator, the court stated, “the most simple and plain reading of the text implies that "the elections" refer to concurrent elections, meaning that the amendment should take effect immediately. There is no indication in the language that would indicate a delay until the following year’s election for it to take effect.” The court also cited the Wilf Constitution’s language, noting that “The Constitution of the Yeshiva University Undergraduate Student Government [for the Wilf Campus] makes clear that election results are implemented at the time of their vote.” Although the candidates did not know that the full results would be released, “The candidates, who volunteered their time and energy, placing themselves at the choosing of their peers, agreed to participate in an election with potential consequences of which they were unaware...it is clear that the myriad of benefits of transparency to the greater Student Body outweigh the candidates’ potential concerns.”
In a striking few paragraphs, the court criticized a number of parties for failing to adhere to the duties placed on them by student constitution. “This trial, however, highlights the irresponsibility of multiple parties regarding the election and amendment process,” the court stated. “First and foremost, the General Assembly (“GA”) and Amendment Committee did not create a text whose meaning is clear and understandable for readers and voters—never mind the basic grammatical errors.”
The Canvassing Committee also acted with a certain degree of incompetence: “While the rules and requirements which stood at the time immediately preceding the election were posted publicly, it should have been well within their means to publicize the proposed amendments before the ballot was sent. Their subsequent inaction has caused much of the confusion surrounding this case.” Moreover, “the Canvassing Committee should not have outsourced their duty of running the election to the OSL, a branch of University administration. Consequently, the election results are not in their possession; and the Student Body is at the mercy of parties seemingly outside the bounds of our Constitution.” The court censured the Committee, stating “Regardless of this Court’s ruling, the employees of the OSL are within their rights to withhold data and ignore the rightful will of the Student Body. As a result, the independence of our Student Body vis-a-vis the administration has been largely degraded and powers of this Honorable Court have been ridiculed.”
Nevertheless, the Court ruled in favor of Rubinstein. It remains to be seen whether the Office of Student life, which possesses the complete election results, will agree to release them.