Elise Gregg | Editor-in-Chief
Post-pandemic, student government has historically struggled with establishing its judicial branch. This time last year, they’d gone over a year without a judicial branch at all.
This fall, SGA has a nearly full branch, with only deputy attorney general remaining vacant. However, delays in training justices and attorneys are causing problems in the Senate.
At a press conference on Oct. 18, senate president Kaily Lachapelle estimated that three-fifths of senators were attending meetings.
“The other two-fifths weren’t – and still aren’t – there,” Lachapelle said during the conference.
Lachapelle called the lack of engagement “dire”, adding that senate leadership is hitting last resort.
“After we reached out and checked it with the senators, those that did not respond, we reached out and asked them to resign,” said Lachapelle.
When Lachapelle said that during the conference, emails had not actually been sent out at that time. In a text the following day, Lachapelle clarified to PantherNOW that they were mistaken in saying the emails had been sent.
Senate leadership plans to send those emails to senators early next week.
But right now, executive members of SGA can only ask senators to step down – there’s no way for leadership in the senate or any other branch to remove them.
“We’re having to ask people to resign because filing a writ could take up to two to three months to even get them out,” Lachapelle said.
When all is functioning normally, students can file writs through Panther Connect with the judicial branch to remove student government members who aren’t doing their jobs.
After students fill out the form, they’re sent off to the judicial branch for review. Members will examine evidence and ultimately decide whether there’s a case for removing a senator or other SGA member from office.
It’s a form of checks and balances that allows students to get involved in SGA functioning and allows the judicial branch to review and manage removals.
Unlike in previous years, this fall there are the people in the judicial branch who can review writs and make removal decisions – in fact, the attorney general, Zachary Stangl, was confirmed almost a month ago, said Lachapelle.
Training is the last thing in the way of that.
According to Chief Justice Mia Rodriguez, the only thing putting a pause on training is the judicial branch finding time.
“The timeline is as soon as people find the time to meet we will be getting trained and any writs that are sent to us for censure or removal will be done by our attorney general,” Rodriguez said during the Oct. 18 press conference.
Rodriguez is hopeful that by the end of this week, a time will be established for training sessions so removals can begin shortly after.
In the meantime, senate leadership just has to wait.
“There’s 47 positions in our Senate and it’s really 100% being relied on by about five or 10 people,” Lachapelle said during the press conference. “I’m doing everything that our governing documents allow us to do.”
In an interview with PantherNOW, student body president Alexander Sutton said this isn’t a new issue, adding that he doesn’t blame Chief Justice Rodriguez for the delays.
Instead, he says it’s a systematic problem with the judicial system and with the governing documents. Unlike the legislative and executive branches, the slate is wiped clean every summer for the judicial branch.
Further, it’s the SGA president who is responsible for appointing most of the judicial branch. Though the senate is responsible for approving those nominees, the system can get clogged if the president simply neglects to nominate anyone.
“Based on the way the documents currently work, accountability is optional at FIU SGA,” Sutton said.
The judicial branch keeps the executive and legislative branches accountable and allows their work to be reviewed. If nobody gets appointed, there’s no branch and no accountability.
Accountability is one component to SGA’s Constitutional Convention, which is focused on changing the current constitution.
For Sutton, the solution is to allow justices and attorneys to keep their jobs instead of starting fresh each summer.
His predictions on timeline are slightly more delayed than Rodriguez’s.
“This judicial branch really should have been up and running at the latest by the start of the fall semester, if not during the summer,” Sutton said. “If we’re lucky, we’ll hear one or two cases in November. If they have their act together then they’ll really only do business and work in the spring.”
That work will include reviewing writs of removal, like for senators who are not doing their jobs. It’s not unprecedented to ask senators to resign – Sutton recalled doing so during his time as senate president.
However, it’s optional and is not as effective in keeping senators accountable as review from the judicial branch.
“When we’re at this point, where you’re forced to simply ask people to resign, they can just not respond to those emails. Or they can say, ‘No, I won’t be resigning. I’ll be collecting my stipend.’”
The $500 stipend that senators collect for an academic year of office ($250 a semester) comes from student activity and service fees.
Sutton said even beyond the money, taking up a position was a waste of resources.
“What you’re doing is depriving a student who would like to be involved from having that opportunity because someone else who’s theoretically representing them is taking their place and not doing the job,” said Sutton.