Beren Constitutional Council Sets Precedent, Rules in Favor of Defendant at First Trial

By: Fruma Landa  |  September 26, 2019

By Fruma Landa, News Editor

On September 24th, 2019, the Beren Constitutional Council ran its first trial, Pollak vs SCWSC, a few months after signing the newly constructed Beren constitution and establishing the Constitutional Council in May 2019. Neima Pollak, the lead plaintiff, brought a claim against SCWSC in an attempt to get their approval for her Sexual Abuse Awareness and Prevention Club, which they denied on the basis of her having missed the club application deadline. Two plaintiffs filed subsequents claims — the Education Club and the Psychology Club. At the trial, all the plaintiffs were represented by Rachel Rosenberg. SCWSC was represented by Aleeza Katz, SCWSC President, and Elka Wiesenberg, SCWSC Vice President of Clubs. 

On September 19th, a few days before the trial, Chief Justice Shana Adler sent an email to the Beren Campus student body informing them of the basis for the case, citing that “the alleged constitutional violation can be found in Article VII Section I. B of the Beren Constitution.” 

Article VII Section I.B states:

“Applications for new club status shall be made during an agreed upon two week period within the first three weeks of each academic semester […]”

Plaintiff’s case against SCWSC was centered around the claim that the application period was not open for fourteen days.

On September 25th, the day after the trial, Adler sent an email to Beren students explaining the results: 

Pollak vs. SCWSC was heard this morning by the Constitutional Council…After much deliberation, the Council ruled in favor of the defense (3-2 vote), feeling that not enough evidence had been presented to prove that SCWSC violated the Beren Constitution. Both the majority opinion and the dissenting opinion will be circulated in the coming days.” 

In an interview with Justice Atara Kelman, she told the Observer that Plaintiff’s main claims were, according to the published dissenting opinion, “[…] that the seven days that the student body had to fill out the club form was in violation of this article which mandates a full two week period.” Another of Plaintiff’s claims was quoted by the majority opinion, which states that “[t]he plaintiff also argued that SCWSC and SGA failed to fulfill their duties of enhancing student life by denying club status if applications were submitted after the deadline.” 

The majority opinion was voted on by Shana Adler, Eliana Lindenberg, and Yael Evgi. In response to Plaintiff’s claim that the word “during” indicates the full length of the two weeks, the majority says, “The defense argued that the word ‘during’ connotes ‘within’ as opposed to ‘for the duration of’. The majority of the court felt this was a compelling read of the article. The plaintiff argued that the word could not be read this way, as section 1A of the constitution states specifically that ‘the renewal of club status shall be made… within the first three weeks of the fall semester’, which would make the defense’s reading of 1B seemingly redundant. However, 1A refers specifically to the renewal of club status, while 1B refers to applications for new clubs. As such, the reading of ‘during’ as ‘within’ is not a redundant understanding.” 

They responded to Plaintiff’s claim that SCWSC was not fulfilling its role of enhancing students’ lives by saying: “The majority of the court felt that this argument did not hold water. The defense brought evidence to show that they did and continue to fulfill their duties to enhance student life, but stated that they must have hard deadlines made by the student leaders or by OSL in order to operate in a functional manner.”

They concluded their opinion by explaining, “Our job as justices is simply to interpret the constitution, not to enforce it. Accordingly, the final decision lay only in whether or not SCWSC violated the Beren Constitution. The majority felt that the plaintiff did not present enough evidence to prove this was the case and thus we found in favor of the defense.”

The dissenting opinion, supported by Atara Kelman and Noa Eliach, agreed with Plaintiff’s claim that the word “during” indicates the full length of the two weeks, “[a]ccording to the Merriam Webster Dictionary the first definition of during is ‘throughout the duration of.’”  

Eliach and Kelman explain, “This [definition] then mandates that the club form be open throughout the duration of the decided upon two weeks. As such, the defendant evidently rejected Article VII Section I.B by having the form open for seven days, rather than the prescribed fourteen.”

The dissenting opinion questions the constitutional interpretation of the majority: “[…] if we were to accept this definition that the constitution had no minimum requirement, one would need to accept that had SCWSC only opened the form, for say, three minutes, that too would have been constitutional. If we look at the continuation of clause 1,B it states that the two week period must be ‘within the first three weeks of each academic semester.’ It thus becomes apparent that the three weeks were the span of time in which the two week window needed to be open. If the two weeks were not a minimum requirement, the additional requirement for a three week time frame would be redundant.”

Furthermore, Kelman, an author of the constitution, “can verify that the word ‘during’ was employed to relay the full two week period.” 

Kelman and Eliach responded to Plaintiff’s claim that SCWSC was not fulfilling its role of enhancing students’ lives by citing the constitution itself. They write, “Article II Section 2 states that the purpose of SGA is ‘To gather and express student opinion, actively represent student views, appropriately address student concerns, and ensure that students are informed of all information of impact to their undergraduate experience.’ Additionally, Article III Section IV clause B defines SCWSC’s purpose ‘To carry out the desires of the Stern College for Women undergraduate student body.’” 

Kelman and Eliach concluded their dissent with: “Today the Constitutional Council lost sight of why the constitution and this very council was created in the first place. We were saddened to see the formalistic attitude which emphasized a narrow and technical reading of the constitution. This case must be contextualized with careful attention to the social and cultural needs of our campus in addition to the more broad and holistic view of our brand new constitution. Is misconstruing one word of the constitution to justify SCWSC’s actions more significant than the aims of the SGA that align with the plain meaning of the text?”

Regarding her decision, Adler commented to the Observer, “We were faced with a difficult case because both sides presented solid arguments. The debate in deliberations mainly surrounded whether to follow the letter of the law or the spirit of the law. Ultimately, the majority felt that the letter of the law took precedence in this case which led us to rule in favor of the defense.”

There is no level of appeal in the Constitutional Council process, so the Pyschology Club, the Education Club, and the Sexual Abuse Awareness and Prevention Club cannot be approved for the Fall 2019 semester. Although the verdict has been difficult for the Education Club and Psychology Club, SCWSC personally reached out to all previous club presidents and asked them if they wanted to renew their club’s status. The Education Club was undergoing a presidential switch during the club application window and by the time there was an official president, the club renewal had passed. The defense says, “SCWSC officials reached out to students who[se] clubs had been denied to suggest other ways they would be able to bring their events to campus without forming an official club.”

SCWSC has voiced frustrations that by taking them to court, students have been ungrateful, as the student councils work hard for the student body. However, Kelman says, “Student Council’s obligation is to help students. Questioning the decision of the student council isn’t necessarily being ungrateful.”

Photo: 245 Lexington Avenue, Beren Campus