The Cornell judicial codes counselor found four instances in which she said the Student Assembly Elections Committee applied election rules in a biased manner when disqualifying Varun Devatha ’19 from the S.A. presidential race, and she told The Sun on Wednesday night that the decision should be overturned.
The committee’s actions “are invalid and against the very basic tenets of ethics,” the judicial codes counselor, Kendall Karr, a Cornell Law student, said in a fiery statement to The Sun late on Wednesday night. Karr’s full report is at the bottom of this article.
Karr’s conclusion that Devatha should be reinstated and that she — and not the elections committee — has the final authority to determine whether or not the committee’s disqualification of Devatha should be overturned called Wednesday night’s initial results into question and has the potential to send the assembly into a crisis.
The situation on Thursday morning, in which two entities have come to opposite conclusions about Devatha’s disqualification and each believe that they have final authority, had some current S.A. members concerned about what will happen next.
Earlier on Wednesday night, the 10-member elections committee, led by non-voting chair Travis Cabbell ’18, upheld its March 28 disqualification of Devatha, declaring Dale Barbaria ’19 the winner by default.
The committee disqualified Devatha because it determined that a meme posted by a supporter of Devatha’s candidacy — who may have also been a member of his campaign — should disqualify him from the race because it included the Cornell logo in violation of election rules, according to internal documents obtained by The Sun.
The meme was posted to a popular Facebook Group, “Cornell: Any Person, Any Meme,” and was deleted after at least 80 people had reacted to the image, screenshots included in the documents show.
In a phone interview late on Wednesday, Cabbell noted that this is the first time “in the history of the Student Assembly” that a disqualified candidate has appealed to the judicial codes counselor, but he stood by the committee’s analysis that Karr’s report is purely advisory.
He said Karr wrote the report based solely on information from Devatha and never contacted the committee. Cabbell said Karr can only evaluate procedural bias and “overstepped bounds to weigh in on matters that are not even applicable.”
“It is not in her power to interpret the rules to say that she has final power,” Cabbell said “As it has been interpreted by the elections committee, this power remains with the body.”
Karr directly opposes this analysis.
“The Committee is incorrect that the Judicial Codes Counselor’s findings are a non-binding recommendation,” Karr wrote in the seven-page report, which she shared with The Sun.
“It would be nonsensical and superfluous to have the Judicial Codes Counselor review the Committee’s conduct for bias, find bias, and ask the biased body to reverse itself,” Karr wrote.
Barbaria and Devatha both declined to comment on Karr’s report.
Karr said that each of the four instances of bias she found would be enough, on their own, to find that the committee’s decision should be overturned.
Karr claims in the report that the elections committee acted with bias when:
- Members who were required to recuse themselves did not
- The committee improperly broadened the scope of a reconsideration hearing after its initial report
- Committee members voted without being present for portions of testimony and deliberations
- The committee did not produce “a minimally acceptable report,” hindering Devatha’s ability to appeal and Karr’s own ability to review its actions.
Student Assembly member TJ Ball ’19 said the lack of clarity regarding the election results is bad for the student body.
“The fact that the elections committee and the JCC are disagreeing over this is definitely not sending a positive message in terms of the effectiveness and clarity of student governance at Cornell,” said Ball, who endorsed Barbaria. “The fact that this is uncharted waters makes this even more of a tense situation.”
Jung Won Kim ’18, the current S.A. president, told The Sun that he believes the elections committee has final authority, but said Karr’s report should be given due weight, a sentiment he had also shared with the committee before its ruling.
“If it is true that the JCC [Karr] recommended that the committee reverse its decision and outlined the reasons why, then that’s also something that should be taken seriously by the elections committee,” Kim said.
The relevant passage of the election rules reads: “If a disqualified candidate finds that the Elections Committee was biased in their application of the rules, they may request a review by the Judicial Codes Counselor (JCC). If the JCC review finds that the application of the rules was biased, the decision of the Elections Committee may be overturned.”
Devatha requested Karr’s review after the committee declined to revise its original decision on March 29, according to documents obtained by The Sun and a source familiar with the situation.
Karr wrote in her report that the rules “are poorly written and create many instances of ambiguity” but that “given that the Judicial Codes Counselor review is to serve as a safeguard against procedural bias, regarding the review as simply a recommendation to the body that rendered the biased decision would not be an intuitive reading of the sentence.”
“The commonsense reading of the Rules vests the power to overturn the Committee’s decision in the Judicial Codes Counselor,” Karr wrote.