Plaintiffs challenged the constitutionality of the GU272 vote but argued their suit does not oppose the referendum’s objectives at a Georgetown University Student Association constitutional council hearing April 17.
The case, “Saydlowski and Castaldi-Moller v. Ethics and Oversight Committee, Election Commission, and GUSA,” was filed by Rowan Saydlowski (COL ’21) and Chris Castaldi-Moller (SFS ’21) to the GUSA constitutional council April 14, hours before the GUSA senate was scheduled to confirm the results of the GU272 referendum. (Full Disclosure: Saydlowski currently serves on The Hoya’s editorial board.) The three councilors are expected to release their decision, coming from a majority vote, by the end of the week.
Before the hearing, constitutional council Chief Justice William Morris (COL ’19) faced a challenge to the constitutionality of his extended tenure on the council, as his term was intended to end with the election of the new GUSA senate. Morris responded to the challenge through an email detailing his qualifications for the position.
The suit claims that the referendum is unconstitutional because of bylaw and constitutional violations by the election commission, the ethics and oversight committee, and GUSA.
The GU272 referendum, which was attached to GUSA senate elections April 11, voted to establish a semesterly fee that would go toward a fund benefiting the descendants of the GU272, the 272 enslaved people sold by the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus in 1838 to financially sustain the university. The referendum proposed a $27.20 semesterly fee included in student tuition bills would be allocated to descendants of the GU272. The referendum, which passed with 66.1% of participating students voting “yes,” should be nullified to safeguard the student body and GUSA, according to Saydlowski and Castaldi-Moller.
“It is through these two deeply important goals, the protection of the student body and the preservation of GUSA’s institutional legitimacy, that we come before the Constitutional Council today,” Saydlowski said at the hearing. “The goals can be achieved only if the illegal referendum is question is overturned.”
The hearing Wednesday was split into three sections to address each of the plaintiff’s main pillars in the case. Saydlowski and Castaldi-Moller made arguments for each of their points, following which Hughes, representatives from the election commission, and current GUSA President Norman Francis Jr. (COL ’20) and former President Juan Martinez (SFS ’20) (representing GUSA) responded to allegations against each of their parties.
The plaintiffs claim the ethics and oversight committee former Chair Dylan Hughes (COL ’19) had a potential unresolved conflict of interest at the time of the referendum, as they both co-sponsored the bill and oversaw referendum complaints. The suit claims that Hughes could have had a motivation to withhold disagreeing complaints.
The chair of the ethics and oversight committee is not prohibited from endorsing GUSA senate candidates or referenda per GUSA bylaws, according to Hughes.
“While I neither endorsed nor campaigned for either side of the referendum, I would have still been free to as Chair,” Hughes said in their statement at the hearing. “While I alerted the Election Commission of every complaint I received, I am not mandated to do so. I have simply been given the power to do so.”
Despite the claims of the document, the suit does not oppose the objectives of the GU272 Referendum, according to Saydlowski.
“Nowhere in our suit do we combat the legitimacy of the ideas behind the referendum, nowhere do we make an argument that is partisan in nature,” Saydlowski said in his opening statement at the hearing. “This suit is about one thing and one thing only: that the process of executing this referendum, the ethics and oversight committee, the election commission and GUSA as a whole violated their own constitution, bylaws and ethical guidelines.”
The election commission, the GUSA body responsible for administering elections, improperly responded to election complaints, insufficiently publicized election rules and the details of the referendum and did not communicated important election details widely enough by only utilizing Twitter for spreading information, according to the suit.
Among other complaints, the suit claims that the election commission confused voters about the portion of the student body needed for the referendum to pass. The election commission Twitter account incorrectly tweeted that the referendum approval threshold was 25% on April 7, but retracted the statement and issued a correction later that day.
The series of tweets and corrections was misleading to voters and possibly suppressed voter turnout among those opposed to the referendum and energized those who supported it, according to Saydlowski.
“Having occurred three days before voting began and only having been explained over Twitter, this caused widespread confusion among voters and differences in beliefs about the threshold requirements of the referendum,” Saydlowski said.
GUSA also had no authority to issue nonamendment referenda, as no clear rules delineating such actions exist in the GUSA constitution or its bylaws, according to the suit.
GUSA can legitimately issue referenda, however, according to an amicus brief submitted to the Constitutional Council signed by 150 Georgetown alumni. Alumna Kara Brandeisky (COL ’13) and Sam Ungar (COL ’12) co-authored the brief which argues that referenda issued by GUSA have historically been an important way for GUSA to express students’ will.
Regardless of the outcome of the case, the university should still appreciate the results of the referendum and the voice of students, according to GUSA transition chair and former GUSA president Juan Martinez (SFS ’20).
“I think that is something that is still expressive of the student body opinion and something that they should take very seriously when they have board of directors discussions and discussions within the presidential cabinet and other administrative bodies,” Martinez said in an interview with The Hoya.