As threat of lawsuit looms large, critics claim CSUN ruling violates Constitution
After a controversial judicial ruling put three students into office who had been previously disqualified from an election, CSUN student government could be facing its third lawsuit in just five years.
On the afternoon of May 1, UNLV lawyers issued a litigation hold — an order for CSUN members to refrain from destroying documents which could be used in a lawsuit.
CSUN Hotel College Alex Murdock, who some expect will be the one to file a suit, could not comment “pending legal action.” Murdock was part of a three-person ticket, called Rebels Reunited, that lost in the recent Executive Board elections to opponents Elias Benjelloun, Kanani Espinoza and Vladislav Zhitny.
“The [Judicial Council] overstepped its authority and violated the very constitution they swore to protect,” Murdock stated via text.
Murdock and other critics of an April 30 decision by the Judicial Council to overturn disqualifi cations for Benjelloun, Espinoza and Zhitny — who together formed the ‘Rebelution’ ticket — allege that the ruling violated the student government Constitution.
The ruling, which reversed decisions made by a student government elections board to disqualify the students for a host of rule violations, was decided by six justices. The CSUN Constitution calls for seven justices to be “physically present,” a fact Chief Justice Alex Velto explains away as being open to interpretation.
“These people are not lawyers. I think that the scope of the Judicial Council has expanded beyond all reasonable limitations to what students should be allowed to adjudicate.
Technically they are acting as magistrates and I was acting as a lawyer.”
“We can carve out exceptions,” said Velto. “Murder is illegal but we still allow the death penalty. The 2nd Amendment says you have the right to bear arms, but you can’t have a rocket launcher.”
Velto said that he interprets the word “present” to mean “working for CSUN” at the time of the ruling. Justice Donald Dollarhide, who did not physically partake in the judicial hearing or the ruling, would count as the seventh justice “physically present” under Velto’s interpretation.
According to Velto, “there’s always room” for the council to interpret specific provisions in CSUN laws. The council, much like the U.S. Supreme Court, is tasked with interpreting and ensuring the Constitutionality of acts within CSUN.
However, opponents of the decision say the Constitution is very clear. Some have even condemned the ruling as personal politics.
“The Judicial Council shall not hear a case, deliberate, or render any decision unless at least seven (7) justices are physically present.”
-CSUN Constitution, Article VII, Section B
Longtime Justice Rochelle Cardy recused herself from the council in the early morning of April 30, the same day the ruling was later released. In an official recusal notice, Cardy had taken issue with the way other council members were approaching the case, though she did not say what specifically she objected to.
“…My recusal is based solely on how a few of the other Justices thought the process should go,” Cardy wrote. “I could not stand by and watch the legal systems we all swore to uphold be pushed to the side.”
Cardy’s recusal states that she felt the Rebelution’s due process rights were not violated, as they were shown evidence against them, and were allowed to face and cross-examine their accusers.
Patrick Alejaga, who served on the elections board and voted multiple times with the board to disqualify Benjelloun’s ticket, later filed a legal brief defending the ticket.
The ruling, which did not specifically name each election board decision that it was overturning, called instead for members of the Rebelution to be seated immediately. Critics, including former CSUN Vice President Jessica Lujan, say this is another failure on the council’s part.
“Unless they are going to firmly establish which cases they are overturning, that’s a violation of Rebels Reunited’s due process, and a failure on their part,” said Lujan, who defended the elections board during the council’s hearing.
Velto admitted it could have been a mistake, but that the conclusion made it clear that each disqualification had been overturned.
“Maybe there might have been a miswording,” said Velto. “I think we were fairly specific. The conclusion is they get to take office.”
Lujan said she hadn’t heard whether legal action was being pursued, but said she feels the council is no longer acting in the interest of the student body.
“I think at this point that the real legal system should get involved because you have students pretending to be judges and lawyers,” she said. “The legal system needs to take control back from this student government.”
Velto maintains a lawsuit filed in a higher court would be invalid because only entities within CSUN can interpret the constitution.