Tom DeLay isn’t the only one bitching about activist judges lately. UC Berkeley graduate students have been targeting the campus judiciary with similar claims following a fiasco involving this month’s student government elections.
At Cal, the graduate students have their own congress known as the Graduate Assembly, but it is technically under the control of the undergrad-dominated ASUC Senate (Associated Students of the University of California). For years the grads have longed for full autonomy — they hardly need the supervision of their younger peers, they argue, to handle their own affairs and $400,000-plus budget. They were poised to get their wish this year via an autonomy referendum on the campus ballot that was reportedly favored to win — at least until the Judicial Council, the student equivalent of the Supreme Court, yanked the initiative off the ballot mere hours before the polls opened.
This echo of Election 2000 wasn’t the first time the undergraduate politicians have outmaneuvered their elders. Last year, the Graduate Assembly submitted a different autonomy measure for the ballot, but the campus Attorney General, an undergrad, didn’t approve its language until the day after the ballot deadline, according to Graduate Assembly president Rishi Sharma.
Strike one for the grads.
This time Sharma had worked closely with ASUC president Misha Leybovich to craft a winning proposal. In meetings over the course of the school year, they’d hashed out an agreement and were ready to take it to the student body. But then Mike Davis — the former chair of the Judicial Council and a member of the Berkeley College Republicans who’d had run-ins with the left-leaning Graduate Assembly in the past — foiled them with a literal eleventh-hour challenge.
The slender, bespectacled senior filed “suit” with the student court just after 11 p.m. on the night before the election, charging that ballot questions about the referendum, and a separate initiative, were inaccurate and biased. By 2 a.m., the Council had e-mailed out a “preliminary injunction” striking the referendum from the ballot. That was the first Sharma and Leybovich had heard of the suit. Sometime after 8 a.m., Leybovich issued an executive order to keep the referendum on the ballot. But Davis promptly sued again, and moments before the voting started, a single member of the Council overruled the executive order. “We were outraged beyond words,” Sharma says. “In the dead of night they issued an injunction without telling us they were hearing it.”
Strike two for the grads.
What ensued was a full-blown government maelstrom, complete with rapid-fire court decisions, competing “lawsuits,” impeachment proceedings, and accusations of politically motivated election hijacking. “This was just way out of left field,” says Leybovich, an undergraduate. “This case could have been filed much earlier. To do it then just indicates some other motivation. … I feel like this is imitating the worst behaviors of real government, the worst legal maneuverings, and the worst motivations that turn people off to government.”
Davis concedes he has it in for the Graduate Assembly Autonomy initiative, but says he didn’t know the details of the referendum until a sample ballot was posted online the day before the election. “I filed suit as soon as I literally could get on a computer,” he says. Still, he could have reviewed both the ballot question and the full text of the proposal in an online voters’ guide, which, according to the ASUC elections chair, was available more than a week in advance. As to the accusations of ulterior motives, Davis says simply: “They’re profiling me. … That wasn’t why I filed suit.”
His complaint hinged on the wording of the ballot question, which read: “The Graduate Assembly represents the interests of over 9,000 graduate and professional students at UC Berkeley, and has functional autonomy within the ASUC over its finances, resource management, political representation, and policies. Shall the Graduate Assembly’s autonomy be recognized by and formalized in the ASUC Constitution?” Davis argued that the question didn’t reflect the actual changes the referendum would effect. The initiative would have limited the Judicial Council’s authority over the Assembly, segregated the Assembly’s accounts from those of the ASUC, and ended the Senate’s ability to withhold Assembly funding, which comes mainly from mandatory fees paid by graduate students.
Davis argued that rather than simply give the Assembly full autonomy, the referendum would grant it “impunity.” His brief written argument concluded, “The question to the voters ought to reflect this and not some warm fuzzy attempt at making everyone feel good about making graduate students more equal than others.”
In the end, the Council ruled that the referendum would formalize a greater degree of graduate autonomy than the Assembly currently enjoys and that the question didn’t reflect that. It also ruled that the language implied — inaccurately — that the current system recognized no autonomy for the Assembly. The decision didn’t play too well with the grads. “We’re having eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds thinking they’re the Supreme Court,” fumed Jon Pennington, a politically involved grad student. “That’s the level of arrogance. I call it the juvenocracy, it’s rule by the juveniles.”
Davis’ opposition to grad student autonomy goes back to the 2003 fight over Proposition 54, Ward Connerly’s initiative to ban most California agencies from collecting data on race. The Assembly came out against Prop. 54, reasoning that it would hurt grad student interests, since many use government race data in their research. But it went a step further and decided to spend $35,000 campaigning against the proposition.
At around the same time, the Berkeley College Republicans had tried to use student money to bring Connerly to speak on the issue, only to be blocked by a university accountant. “Meanwhile, we’re seeing all over our campus ‘No on 54’ buttons and posters,” Davis recalls. To Republican students on a liberal campus, this reeked of hypocrisy. After an ASUC senator traced the No-on-54 cash to the Graduate Assembly, campus Republicans hightailed it to the chancellor, and their complaints soon gained teeth via lawsuit threats by the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation.
The university ordered the graduates to quit their lobbying, based on a fluctuating UC policy that says university resources can’t be used for non-university political campaigns. It did, however, let the Assembly reimburse students for campaign expenditures already made.
The incident fueled both the grads’ resentment and the commitment by Davis –then-chair of the Judicial Council — to keep grads under Senate oversight. “They could do whatever they wanted and the ASUC would be powerless to stop it” if the autonomy proposal passed, Davis says. “There is no check; there is no balance; there is no oversight. They’re given a blank check and no one can track the money after that.”
That doesn’t fly with Leybovich: “Certain people are taking a very patronizing view of the Grad Assembly, which sort of boggles my mind because they’re grad students, dude!” he says. “Not to say they’re better, but they’re not an inferior organization.”
After the Judicial Council yanked the referendum, some members of the ASUC Senate challenged the Council’s power. They held an impeachment hearing against Jessica Unterhalter, the “judge” who overturned Leybovich’s last-minute executive order and came within one vote of removing her. Thirteen of twenty senators — one fewer than the two-thirds needed — voted to remove Unterhalter, who argued she had simply been upholding her colleagues’ unanimous decision of a few hours earlier.
Meanwhile, Davis filed two more suits. One demands that the university freeze the Assembly’s accounts until it pays more than $90,000 in back elections costs it owes the ASUC — a debt for which Leybovich says he and the Assembly have already worked out a payment schedule. The second managed to quash the grad students’ hopes. It charged that their referendum hadn’t gone through the proper process to get on the ballot because the student Attorney General had not approved its language before the ASUC Senate voted on it. The Judicial Council agreed, and has banned the measure from any further vote this year.
Strike three. Now, Sharma says, the grads are ready to walk away. “We are currently working on plans to remove ourselves from the ASUC entirely,” he writes in an e-mail.
They can apply to the university for recognition as a second, separate student government. But that may take a while. For now, at least, student politics will remain the one part of campus life where the grads are stuck answering to their students.