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Constitutional Council appointees seek to improve transparency, continuity

HANNAH RONCA / The Stanford Daily

Last week, the 20th Undergraduate Senate and the Graduate Student Council (GSC) voted to confirm Jayaram Ravi ’19 and Carson Smith ’19 to the Constitutional Council, the judicial branch of the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU).

The new councilmembers join returning member Josie Bianchi ’20. Due to a lack of applications from graduate students, two seats on the Council remain empty. ASSU executive Shanta Katipamula ’19 wrote in an email to The Daily that she and fellow executive Rosie Nelson hope to have selected the final nominees within a few weeks. 

Ravi and Smith, who are both political science majors, have worked with various branches of the ASSU in the past. Both also served on the 18th Undergraduate Senate. Ravi was also a frosh council representative in the 2015-2016 academic year, and last year, Smith worked on an ASSU executive committee for diversity center outreach.

Smith, co-chair of the Stanford American Indian Organization, also served as a mediator in a meeting between the Stanford Native American community and the Advisory Committee on Renaming Junipero Serra Features.

GSC co-chair Yiqing Ding M.S. ’18 said Ravi and Smith’s experience in student government and political science gives him confidence in them. He added that “ASSU executives used a very rigorous process to vet the candidates,” who have “unique perspectives” to bring to the council.

The candidate selection process began in spring quarter, when the ASSU executives sent out a call for applications. The top candidates were interviewed by a committee including representatives from the ASSU executive branch, Undergraduate Senate and GSC, who then submitted their final preferences to the executive team. The executives officially nominated the candidates and presented them to the Senate and GSC for confirmation hearings.

In an email to The Daily, Senate chair Leya Elias ’21 also praised the pair, saying that the Senate has “no concerns” about them.

“Carson and Jayaram were both candidates who not only had professional experience with the ASSU but also had a strong understanding of the role of the Constitutional Council in the larger ASSU,” Elias wrote. “The Senate sees both candidates as being both passionate and well-aware about the issues facing the ASSU internally and externally, and we are excited to see them tackle some this year.”

Looking ahead to their terms as councilmembers, both Ravi and Smith advocated a narrow interpretation of the Constitutional Council’s role. Ravi emphasized that the Council should only act upon cases presented to them, rather than issuing advisory opinions as some Councils have done in the past.

“The role of the Constitutional Council should be as narrow as possible,” Ravi said. “We are the only unelected branch of government. To excessively constrain the ability of the elected branch of government to do the people’s bidding is damaging for the Council.”

Smith stressed that while the Council exists to mediate constitutional disputes between different parties on campus, not all conflicts fall under its purview. She identified the role of the Council as being to interpret legislation from the Undergraduate Senate and Graduate Student Council as well as the ASSU Constitution and the bylaws of different ASSU bodies.

“My understanding is that most students probably never look at [the ASSU Constitution] or interact with it or even touch it,” Smith said. “I think it’s important for the Constitutional Council to be able to understand what this document actually is and how it applies to the student body.”

For Ravi, his time on Senate informed his bid for the Constitutional Council. During his sophomore year, KZSU and the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band brought a successful suit against the Senate, alleging that the legislature had violated the ASSU constitution by denying student groups the opportunity to petition for Annual Grants. The Constitutional Council ruled in favor of KZSU and the Band, leading many senators — including Ravi — to seek changes in the way the Council handles cases.

“[The Senate] spoke to the judges and tried to form a process that would be more fair in the future,” Ravi said. “I more recently became interested in serving on the institution myself because I think that there’s just some process things that need to be fixed.”

Ravi hopes to use his new position on the Council to push for reform from the inside. Both he and Smith identified continuity and transparency as key areas in need of improvement.

Currently, the Council has no formalized process in place to train new councilmembers. Ravi and Smith are instead relying on informal contact with previous councilmembers, whom they know from their time in student government, to get up to speed.

The Council also lacks a system with which to provide councilmembers access to documents from past Councils. To increase the preservation of institutional knowledge, Smith and Ravi are working with ASSU governance and special projects manager Luka Fatuesi ’17 to create ASSU email addresses for the councilmembers so that official correspondence can be preserved even after members move on. In addition, they plan to create a Google Drive folder containing past opinions and procedural documents.

“I think it’s really about how past cases will impact the decisions we’ll have to make in this upcoming year and then deciding from there how we decide to document these cases and how we create a body of institutional knowledge for those who come after use, so they’re also able to interact with the information,” Smith said.

 

Contact Erin Woo at erinkwoo ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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