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University Court rules Student Association constitutional amendment unconstitutional


A gavel sits on a desk in the University Court room. Brandon Chen / Thresher

By Brandon Chen     10/4/23 12:34am

University Court made a unanimous ruling in a preliminary investigative hearing Saturday, Sept. 30, stating that the Student Association violated its constitution during its constitutional amendment ratification on April 23. 

Simon Yellen, a junior at Duncan College, submitted a complaint to UCourt Apr. 24, the day after special election results were released. In an email to UCourt, Yellen said that a 55% approval of the constitutional amendment does not meet the 2/3 supermajority needed for constitutional ratification outlined in the previous constitution, specifically citing Article 10.

Since the complaint was filed near the end of the academic year, UCourt decided to hear the case in the fall semester, according to Yellen. Solomon Ni, the Student Association president, said that the UCourt chair allowed the SA to operate under the new constitution until a hearing could occur.

In response to the complaint, Ni and Kam’Ren Wells, the Student Association parliamentarian, sent a memo to UCourt outlining their reasons to honor the constitutional amendment. 

Ni and Wells claim that the amendment process in the old constitution was unclear and therefore the question should be deferred to the SA parliamentarian, not to UCourt. They also cite Yellen’s assessment of Article 10 as invalid because it was “placed to lay out instructions on how to implement the newly adopted Constitution at the time.” 

The new constitution requires a majority vote, as opposed to a 2/3 supermajority, for amendments. Ni also said that in creating a new constitution, they have “refounded” the SA. Therefore, the amended voting threshold outlined in the new constitution should be used to ratify the new constitution, according to Ni. 

“I think that a governing document should be very reflective of the students that are attending and currently enrolled at the school,” Ni told the Thresher. “Basically, we are operating under a constitution that was adopted by a group of people that no longer are enrolled at Rice … and I don’t believe that a document should be for people that aren’t here anymore.”

Ni and Wells also contend that one-third plus one student should not be able to overturn decisions supported by a majority of the student body.

Yellen said he was disappointed in the SA’s response to the complaint.

“It really just seems like there was a lot of smoke and mirrors thrown up to avoid accepting responsibility, which is disappointing to see,” Yellen said. “There were various attempts to justify reasons why less than a supermajority of votes is acceptable. Saying that the new amendment changed the voting limit to 50% … and should be applied retroactively … is just sort of ludicrous.”

UCourt decided that the constitutionality of this vote should be decided by the old constitution, and therefore ruled the ratification of the constitutional amendment as unconstitutional. UCourt said that as outlined in Section 8.2.2, a constitutional amendment requires the consent of the Senate, as well as a supermajority vote in which at least 20% of the student body participates. As a result, UCourt decided that the Student Association must comply with the old constitution from now onward. 

UCourt representatives declined to comment on the case.

“I think the decision puts us between a rock and a hard place,” Ni said. “Especially considering that whenever we think about the 20% threshold for getting students out to vote. That’s a really, really difficult threshold for any college [or] university to actually reach.”

The complainant and respondent have the right to appeal before Oct. 9 before the decision goes into effect. 

“We’re exploring our options in terms of what to do because I don’t think anyone wants to go back to the old constitution as it is right now,” Ni said. “[Appealing] is on the table, but there are other avenues. University Court has basically said that it’s up to our discretion whether or not we want to offer it up for another campus-wide vote. And I think that’s something that we’re exploring as of right now.”

If either party appeals the decision, UCourt will hold a closed hearing after the end of the appeal period.

Ivana Hsyung contributed reporting to this article.

[10/4/2023 8:06 p.m.] This article was updated to include that UCourt declined to comment.

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