By: David Tanner  | 

Coronavirus v. Student Justices: An Appreciation of the Wilf Campus Student Court

As this most unusual of semesters comes to a close, I follow outgoing Commentator Editor-in-Chief Avi Hirsch’s lead of looking retrospectively at the past academic year. But instead of examining the Yeshiva University administration, I’d like to focus on a subject perhaps less exciting, but no less significant: the Wilf Campus Student Court.

The first time I ever heard of the Student Court came in the form of an email from Chief Justice Phil Dolitsky this past January. The case revolved around the vacancy of the Yeshiva Student Union (YSU) presidency, but more interesting to me was the newfound knowledge that we even had a Student Court to begin with. As it was my first semester at YU, I had little knowledge of the Wilf Student Government structure, and I naively thought that any dispute or need for clarification of the Wilf Student Constitution was dealt with by the YU administration. How wrong I was.

In that first decision of the 2019-2020 academic year, the chief justice and his colleagues displayed their modus operandi for the year to come. Though the court recognized that the question was moot, seeing as the legal challenge to Zach Greenberg’s ascension to the YSU presidency had been removed, it took the case as an opportunity to highlight the inadequacies of the Wilf Student Constitution. Rather than simply reject the petition due to the accepted suggestion of mootness, the court’s justices highlighted the legal flaws inherent in the student government’s governing document, thereby galvanizing student leaders to revise the constitution, which passed in the recent election.

The bulk of the remaining caseload for the Student Court this semester consisted of sometimes contentious electoral questions, starting with the challenge of attempting to pass an early constitutional amendment that would lower the required number of signatures for student government candidates. I saw this as my chance to play a role in the judicial process and submitted a brief to the court based on my reading of the constitution. Though my claim was ultimately overruled with the court’s unanimous decision that the early passage of an amendment was unconstitutional, I felt satisfied knowing that Chief Justice Dolitsky and his colleagues had spent time considering the arguments for and against, analyzing the constitution, and arriving at a ruling based on democratic principles. The court also bolstered my spirits when, in inimitable fashion, Chief Justice Dolitsky concluded, “We recognize these times [of off-campus elections due to COVID-19] are unique and challenging. But the Yeshiva University community is a strong community. Over the past few weeks, it has shown that when the going get tough, the tough do indeed get going.” This, to me, showed the Student Court in its full glory: justice with empathy, pertinacity with encouragement.

Some have criticized the Student Court’s “unchecked power,” but every legislative branch needs a judiciary counterpart, every constitution an unquestionable interpreter. The constitution ensures that justices may use their office with discretion by providing guidelines for the removal of any justice and requiring a new court to be selected each academic year, as seen in Article XI, Sections 1(4) and 1(3), respectively. The court, therefore, remains an independent yet accountable institution, one which the leaders of the student government revitalize each year as Wilf Campus’ undergraduate student body's sole judiciary authority.

Unfortunately, the remaining cases before the Student Court, both those it declined to hear and those it ruled on, took a more divisive turn, focusing largely on the eligibility of students for student government candidacy. What remained constant, however, was the court’s calm, steady leadership in times of turmoil. The last two cases brought an unexpected twist: Instead of the unanimity the court enjoyed in its previous decisions, these resulted in 3-2 splits with Chief Justice Dolitsky in the minority on both occasions. But in spite of the dissension, the court maintained its poise and civility throughout. In the chief justice’s recent dissent (the first of this academic year), he, joined by Justice Stern, withheld no punches, calling the majority opinion a “grievous error” and bringing to mind the scathing tone of late U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia (invoked by name in the first sentence of the dissent). However, the (as-of-yet) sole dissent of this year’s Student Court teaches a lesson no number of unanimous opinions could, one we would be prudent to take with us: Disagreement need not engender disrespect. I’ve often admired Android’s motto: “Be together, not the same,” and a crucial aspect of “being together” is treating differences of opinion with respect, civility and decorum.

The Wilf Student Court has modeled dependability in a time of instability and good humor in a time when disagreements over key issues divide and sometimes polarize the student body. I thank Chief Justice Phillip Dolitsky, Associate Justices Jacob Stern, Bryan Lavi, Avraham Sosnowik, Aryeh Burg, and Justice Pro Tempore Jacob Friedman for showing the student body that disagreement need not result in hostility. With their conduct, they have echoed the words of wisdom in Mishlei 8:20 by “lead[ing men] in the way of righteousness, in the midst of the paths of justice.”

Photo caption: A gavel
Photo credit: Pixabay