Restoring Balance: The Return of the Constitutional Council

Intertwined within the structure of the United States government, the practice of checks and balances along with the early establishment of judicial review have forced the President and Congress to develop legislation that, if need be, could survive the scrutiny of the federal judicial system.  The Supreme Court, for example, has overturned hundreds of policies and practices once deemed acceptable to the elected bodies in order to ensure, at least in theory, that the Constitution is properly interpreted over time.  Although this system of checks and balances is not a perfect process, it constantly strives (and typically succeeds) in keeping one branch of government from overpowering the rest.

Unbeknownst to most, the ASSU has a similar system.  While the Undergraduate Senate, Graduate Student Council, and the Executive receive a majority of the limelight around campus, there also exists the little-known, yet uniquely influential, Constitutional Council.  Designed for the sole purpose of interpreting ambiguity in the ASSU Constitution, the Constitutional Council is comprised of five members of the Stanford student body who are nominated by the ASSU President and then approved by both legislative bodies.  In the past three years, however, less than five cases have been brought forth to the members of the Council, and even fewer were actually argued.

Considering the vast amount of policies passed each month by all branches of the ASSU, including the Elections Commission and the Nominations Commission, it is more than disturbing that the Constitutional Council remains disappointingly underutilized by the ASSU as well as the Stanford student body as a whole.  When asked whether he thought that the Council should be more active in the ASSU, Constitutional Council member Tommy Tobin ’10 noted that  “while [the Council] can’t operate in an advisory capacity, constitutional issues are bound to arise in governing.   [The Council] invites the other branches to involve them as much as possible.”

So why have so few cases been brought before the Council?  While some members of the ASSU argue that Constitutional Council cases simply just take too much time to be decided (usually between one to three weeks), others point to lack of constitutional appreciation and an overall misunderstanding of what the Council actually is.

As a result, in order to better serve the student body, the Council recently began working to improve its visibility by improving its web presence and actively consulting ASSU officials; and their effort appears to be taking heed.

According to Tobin, “Thankfully, the ASSU Senate and Executive are making fuller use of this resource to elucidate and resolve Constitutional quandaries this year.”  In the past few weeks, the Council agreed to hear two cases, one regarding the enrollment status of an elected Undergraduate Senator and another involving the constitutionality of campaign spending caps for the upcoming ASSU Spring Elections.  A step in the right direction, yet a multitude of potential cases still remain unclear.

Many members of the Stanford community continue to raise concerns over the recent appointment of a new Executive Chief of Staff as well as the process by which the current Vice President, Andy Parker ’11, was approved.  While these cases have not been formally introduced before the Council, Tobin believes that they may be headed there soon.

Still, the lack of Constitutional Council cases over the past few years raises further uneasiness over the actions of recent and current ASSU administrations. The current state of the Constitutional Council demonstrates that checks and balances are yet another factor contributing to the ASSU’s credibility crisis.  Hopefully the latest Council cases will represent a trend towards the restoration of the judicial branch’s proper role in ensuring that the decisions of our student government are both legitimate and made in the interest of the student body as a whole.

Ryan Woessner served as ASSU Elections Commissioner for the 2007-2008 academic year and was the Legislative Liaison for the Gobaud / de la Torre Administration until his resignation in December.

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