Guest editorial: Emergency trial resolution gives Honor Council too much power

by Jack Hasler ’15, guest contributor

(k) Extenuating Circumstances
Under extraordinary circumstances that make normal jury selection and standard trial procedures impossible, in the interest of timely resolution to a case and fairness to the parties involved, Honor Council reserves the right to make necessary modifications to move the proceedings forward given substantial effort to preserve universal trial procedures. At least five members of Honor Council will convene to consent to modifications that uphold the spirit of the Honor Code. Trial parties will consent to the modifications prior to the trial proceeding.

The idea behind the Emergency Trial Procedures resolution passed at the fall Plenary on September 30 is well intentioned and, to a certain degree, necessary. That said, the resolution was poorly worded, and in its current form, is open to abuse and misinterpretation by future Honor Councils.

There are three main weaknesses to the resolution.  First, this clause can be invoked “under extraordinary circumstances that make normal jury selection and standard trial procedures impossible.”

From the discussions at Plenary, as well as my own conversations with the co-heads, the “extraordinary circumstances” clause is intended to account for times when one of the parties to a trial is pressed for time such as a student about to go abroad or nearing graduation.

But words such as “extraordinary” and “impossible” are open to broad interpretation. Who’s to say that a council down the road won’t invoke the clause because they have three other trials pending or upcoming midterms? Such shortcuts would change a trial’s structure to suit Council’s own interests at the expense of those interests of the parties involved.

The second concern lies in the number of people required to enact the emergency powers: five.  Honor Council is made up of sixteen student representatives, making the number of necessary people to come to an agreement on the issue fewer than a third of the elected body.

Most organizations at Haverford, Honor Council included, make decisions by consensus. The council cannot usually make a decision when more than two members are absent (absent members automatically stand outside of consensus). Should the emergency powers in question be invoked, the move would need the support of fourteen council members (and in a perfect world, have neither of the other two standing outside consensus).

The third and greatest weakness is that “necessary modifications” encompasses every possible change that could be made to the trial process.  While the original intent of the amendment was to allow for modifications in jury selection procedure, this section misses that point and is vulnerable to gross misinterpretation in the future

Prior to the resolution’s passage, the jury already had the ability to modify trial procedure. Instead, the resolution takes the power to change procedure from the jury and into the hands of the council.

My worries center on the possibility that one day Honor Council will have at least five lazy and untrustworthy or, more likely, confused and stressed members who will use enact emergency powers in a spirit contrary to that in which it was made. Former Honor Council co-secretary Aubrey Penny ‘13 argued at Plenary that if you don’t trust council members, you shouldn’t elect them.  But sadly this isn’t a perfect world.

Honor Council members are elected through an Internet poll with little more than a picture and a paragraph describing each candidate.  It’s easy to write a persuasive paragraph, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into being a dedicated member of Honor Council.

I, as a rule, don’t vote for anyone I have not met.  The reason is simple: I don’t know enough about them to make an informed decision.

It’s also important to realize that even if we trust members of the council, there is still nothing wrong with putting constraints on their power.  Changes to the Honor Code go through Plenary to keep power among the student body.

Still, there are a few safeguards built into this. In addition to some very well meaning language, which will hopefully be enough to keep future Councils bound to the spirit in which this resolution was enacted, all trial parties must agree to the modifications.

Although this concession to trial-parties will work some of the time, students involved in trials are not necessarily well informed about trial procedure and the potential ramifications of changes to its structure. Additionally, it’s possible that students, as busy as they are, might agree to the modifications simply to speed up the trial process, especially if it’s at the suggestion of council members.

While the resolution has benefits, the council should create and publish to the community a concrete list of situations under which the clause can be invoked, and specify what modifications can be made.

At the next plenary, the student body should adopt a resolution incorporating this list into the amendment in question while also changing the number of votes necessary to invoke the Emergency Procedures clause from five to fourteen.

Contact the writer at: Jhasler@haverford.edu

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