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UJ hears case on RMS constitutionality

Published: April 24, 2009
Section: Front Page

Huddle: Union Judiciary members deliberate during the trial about if they will hear arguments about alternative means of resolving the Racial Minority Senator issue at the trial on Wednesday.<br />PHOTO BY Danielle Wolfson/The Hoot

Huddle: Union Judiciary members deliberate during the trial about if they will hear arguments about alternative means of resolving the Racial Minority Senator issue at the trial on Wednesday.
PHOTO BY Danielle Wolfson/The Hoot


The Union Judiciary heard the case of Klionsky and McElhaney v. Student Union at a proceeding on Wednesday that sought to answer whether the Student Union Constitution allows for the positions of Racial Minority Senator (RMS) and Racial Minority Representative to the Finance Board (F-Board). Over the four and a half hours of the trial, the courtroom became both tense and emotional as the two sides discussed issues of race relations at Brandeis.

In the complaint filed with the case, petitioner Gideon Klionsky ‘11, who declared himself to be both white and an Ashkenazi Jew at trial, explained that he had tried to sign up to run for the position of RMS, only to be turned down by Secretary Tia Chatterjee ‘09.

At trial, Klionsky reiterated his claims, stating, “this is discrimination based on race.”

“All the people who are eligible [to vote for the position of RMS] have these five [senators] in addition to the RMS,” he added.

In his opening address, Ryan McElhaney ‘10, who represented Klionsky, concurred. “I don’t think positions should be decided by race,” he said, later adding, “it’s not fair and it’s not right.”

The Student Union, represented by lead council Jamie Ansorge ’09 along with Nathan Robinson ’11 and Matt Kipnis ’11, disagreed on multiple levels.

The Union argued first that the venue chosen for discussing the position was not appropriate. In his opening, Kipnis reiterated this point, noting that the Union Constitution is up for review in the fall, at which point the entire student body would be able to discuss the necessity of the RMS position. In addition, later in the trial, outgoing Union President Jason Gray ‘10 testified that he believes holding future town-hall meetings would be one way to receive student input on the future of the RMS. “What’s cool is that as students at Brandeis, we actually have the opportunity to get it right,” he said.

Gray, who has spoken in favor of the RMS in the past, added, “I have found it to be true that white students feel better represented and more secure with their representation than black or minority students on this campus.”

The second argument of the Union was that the University Board on Student Conduct (UBSC) ought to be the only body that hears cases regarding non-conformity with the Brandeis Rights and Responsibilities handbook and, more specifically, the clause therein on racial discrimination. Jess Kent ’09, who sits on the UBSC, clarified this issue, explaining that the UBSC should be the one to resolve issues of racial discrimination. Further clarifying this point in the legal arguments section of the trial, Ansorge made clear that the issue of racial discrimination was “outside the authority of the Union government.”

Klionsky disputed this fact, citing the “supremacy clause” of the Union Constitution that read, “this Constitution shall be enacted in accordance with all federal, state, and local laws, and University policies, but the Union Government shall not be responsible for the enforcement of such laws and policies.”

Arguing in the complaint that “the early placement of this clause” gives the clause greater value, Klionsky argued it should “invalidate contradictory portions of the Constitution.”

In his testimony, Gray made clear that while those in charge of University policies – and specifically Dean of Student Life Rick Sawyer – have “the power to turn off the lights in the building,” alluding to the fact that they have ultimate say over enforcement of university policies, “I am not responsible for enforcement of such laws and policies.”

A final issue brought up at trial by the Union was that the RMS position does not discriminate against non-racial minorities and that, in fact, “there is good reason for having these positions and there are people who value them,” according to Robinson.

The Union called J.V. Souffrant TYP ’09, who affirmed the necessity of the RMS position: “It is very important to the racial minority community…it’s the voice of the racial minority community.”

Souffrant added that racial minorities “have gone through so much in the history of Brandeis,” alluding to incidents such as the Ford Hall demonstrations in 1969. “They deserve more,” he said.

At one point, Souffrant was asked how he would feel if the RMS were eliminated. “I will tell you from my heart,” he said. “The racial minority community would be in an uproar. Without this position, our voices will not be heard.” Upon finishing this statement, the audience in the room applauded.

After McElhaney cross examined Souffrant in a weighty exchange on racial tensions at Brandeis, Justice Julia Sferlazzo ’09 apologized to those in attendance. “I want to apologize right now for that…I want everyone to feel that there shouldn’t be hurt in this room.”

Aside from presenting the importance of the RMS, the Union argued that the position did not harm Klionsky in any way. In his legal arguments, Ansorge reminded the court that there was “never any hostility or aversion shown toward Ryan or Gideon.” In his closing, Robinson added that the RMS position does not meet the requirement that discriminatory practices “unreasonably interfered with [Klionsky’s] educational opportunity.”

Regardless, in his closing, McElhaney argued that “in reality, racism is wrong no matter how it is cut.” He made clear that he felt the position should be suspended pending review.

Issues of Format

In a break from past precedent, the Union Judiciary changed the format of the case to better meet the needs of the trial at hand. As described by Chief Justice Rachel Graham Kagan ’09, “the structure of the trial will be somewhat different than in past instances to allow for the input of those with an interest in the case who are not named parties.”

Indeed, after witness testimony, both sides were allowed to make legal arguments of no more than ten minutes. Afterwards, legal arguments for both sides were made by members of the community. Amicus curiae briefs were also submitted as part of the case.

Issues of Recusal

The Union motioned for the recusal of Justice Jordan Rothman ’09 on account of statements he has written in The Hoot about diversity on campus. Rothman refused to recuse himself, writing, “I would like to say that I NEVER publically or privately ruminated over my opinions on the Racial Minority Senator position.”

Rothman added, “Should Scalia recuse himself from a case simply because there may be a Conservative outcome in his opinions? Of course not.”

Rothman also pointed out that Justice Sferlazzo chaired the Senate’s diversity committee last year, but was not asked to recuse herself.

Due to a reporting error, the article attributed statements taken from the complaint that was filed with the case to Gideon Klionsky. In fact, Ryan McElhaney was responsible for writing the complaint.