Sen. Will Wasson J.D. ’21 resigns following SA Review Board’s adjudication on VIMS Liaison Act

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EMMA FORD AND KIM LORES / THE FLAT HAT

At  5 p.m. Tuesday Nov. 10, Sen. Will Wasson J.D. ’21 announced via email his resignation from the College of William and Mary’s Student Assembly. Wasson’s resignation followed a recent SA Review Board hearing which declared the VIMS Liaison Act, passed by senators Oct. 7, to be unconstitutional.

“The reason I resigned is because when the Review Board said the VIMS Liaison Act is struck down, and VIMS needs to get their seat back,” Wasson said in an interview with The Flat Hat.  “…The law school can’t have three.”

Senators passed the VIMS Liaison Act to establish increased interaction between SA and the College’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Some senators worried about the feasibility of creating a senator position for VIMS since students at the graduate school do not pay the Student Activities Fee, which funds SA. Additionally, a VIMS senator would have to drive over an hour to attend SA meetings and committees twice a week to avoid inadvertently violating SA’s attendance policy.

However, some representatives, like Class of 2021 President Aria Austin ’21, raised concerns that the act violated Article I, Section I, Clause II of SA’s Constitution, which requires each graduate school to receive representation in SA.

The Clause states, “there shall be seven Senators from the graduate schools, apportioned among the schools as the graduate council shall designate, provided every school is represented by at least one Senator.”

In response to senators’ concerns, SA passed a constitutional amendment that altered the language of Clause II, instead placing the apportionment of graduate seats in the hands of the Graduate Council provided that Graduate Council grant each graduate school a seat if it requests one.

The Review Board case specifically centered around the constitutional amendment regarding Article I, Section I, Clause II. The Review Board ruled that since the amendment was passed without representation from either VIMS or the College’s School of Education, the constitutional amendment and the VIMS Liaison Act was unconstitutional.

“What the Board takes issue with is not that there is a violation per-se, but that the violation in question concerns the heart of Student Assembly’s purpose as stated in the Preamble,” the Review Board said.

However, the Review Board’s ruling raised questions about other bills that have been passed by the Senate without input from or votes cast by representatives from graduate schools.

Wasson said that any SA legislation which includes spending, constitutional amendments or policy positions, and was not voted on by at least one person from every graduate school, may now be considered unconstitutional under the Review Board’s decision.  He questioned if SA could function effectively in compliance with this ruling.

“The reason I resigned is because when the Review Board said the VIMS Liaison Act is struck down, and VIMS needs to get their seat back. The law school can’t have three.”

He said it has been difficult for the Senate to include graduate school senators from all schools simultaneously, since many graduate students do not have enough time to commit to SA. Wasson expressed concern that needing representation from all graduate schools for matters that pertained to them, even in part, could prevent SA from completing any meaningful work for the student body.

“I think the plan right now is just to hope to God that no one messes with us,” Wasson said.  “…I think we’re just planning on ignoring it after that, because it literally upsets the entire structure of the Student Assembly … It brings into question everything.  The budget is in question, the EAC process that Meghana’s trying to build, that’s in question, the election’s in question.  I think the plan is just to ignore it.  That being said, if someone does, if Christine Rosa, the Chief Counsel of the Review Board, brought us up on every single one of those bills, based on the interpretation of the Review Board right now, I think we would fail every single one of them.”

SA Chief Council Christine Rosa ’21 brought the case against Senate Chair Meghana Boojala ’22, Wasson, and Graduate Council President Jane Chiffriller J.D. ’21 after a phone call with VIMS Graduate Council Representative Evan Flynn MSc ‘21. After the call, Rosa believed that members at VIMS were misled about the Liaison Act and preferred establishing a senator position over the liaison position.

Wasson was confused by the claims of miscommunication and brought forth over 30 pieces of evidence that included text messages and email exchanges between parties involved in the act and Flynn. In three of the text exchanges regarding the Review Board position, Flynn expressed that VIMS was satisfied with either a senator or liaison position, particularly since the Constitutional amendment allowed VIMS to access a Senator seat during semesters where a VIMS student could make the commitment. Additionally, the VIMS Liaison Act and the constitutional amendment within it were approved by the Graduate Council, which does have representation from VIMS.

“I am very displeased, and that’s why it’s part of the amendment that we’re trying to bring that we brought 35 pieces of evidence, explicitly showing that the Graduate Council voted on this unanimously, explicitly showing that Evan said that she didn’t think we were trying to mislead her, explicitly showing that former members of VIMS didn’t want to be a part, explicitly showing that the Education School at least four times rebuffed Jane’s efforts to get them to become members of the Student Assembly,” Wasson said. “And they still ruled in favor of the respondent.”

Wasson admitted that there was some miscommunication between VIMS and SA regarding voting power but did not feel that there was standing for the case as no member of VIMS was upset by the amendment.

In its ruling, the Review Board wrote, “It would set a precedent that, in the event of a contradiction with the Constitution, Student Assembly can take any unconstitutional action which they consider appropriate. Student Assembly is effectively changing the Constitution to suit themselves rather than changing themselves to suit the Constitution.”

The Review Board provided a remedy so that the Senate could function without representation from all graduate schools: the invocation of emergency powers, which were added to the SA’s constitution by the Senate last semester in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Wasson was the sponsor of the bill. The Review Board maintained that these powers could be invoked if Senate believed there was no other way to bring itself into compliance with the Constitution.

Wasson said that this is a misguided remedy, as he believes it makes light of the Emergency Powers Act. He commented that the Emergency Powers Act should be used for matters pertaining to the current pandemic, and also noted that as the author of this bill, he was never asked to brief on this topic for the Review Board or to answer questions about it before them.  Wasson pointed out that the Emergency Powers Act was also passed without VIMS or School of Education participation, and thus may be considered unconstitutional itself under the Review Board’s ruling.

Wasson expressed his hopes that College students do not view the case as representative of the work that SA completes each semester.

“I think when it comes right down to it, a lot of people don’t care about Student Assembly, and I think they don’t care about it for the exact reason why we’re here today,” Wasson said. “They think it’s just a lot of students playing government, and not doing a lot of real change … I think anyone reading this should understand this doesn’t define Student Assembly. Everyone kept saying how important I was, I do very little things. I do procedural things that don’t matter. AJ, Loni, Kyle, Ifeoma, Celeste, Katie, these people are doing the real work that will actually impact students’ lives for years to come. Years to come. I mean, that’s what matters.”

“I think when it comes right down to it, a lot of people don’t care about Student Assembly, and I think they don’t care about it for the exact reason why we’re here today. They think it’s just a lot of students playing government, and not doing a lot of real change … I think anyone reading this should understand this doesn’t define Student Assembly.”

Following Wasson’s resignation, at the Nov. 10 Senate meeting, Sen. Nicholas Matuszewsi J.D. ’21 introduced the Review Board Amendment Act. This act proposes several amendments to Section 3 of the SA Constitution, which pertains to the Review Board, as well as Section 7.

The amendments stipulate that the Review Board’s jurisdiction should not extend to review of constitutional amendments adopted by the Senate, unless the amendment in question conflicts with another constitutional provision. The amendments would also require that students have standing – that is, that they have suffered a particularized injury for which the Review Board can provide relief – in order to bring a case before the Review Board.

Questions remain whether it is constitutional, under the Review Board’s recent decision, for senators to pass constitutional amendments without the presence of, or votes from, representatives from VIMS and the School of Education. The act will be discussed by Senate committees and voted on by senators at the beginning of the spring semester.

At the same meeting, senators listened to a presentation from Interim Athletic Director Jeremy Martin. Martin reviewed the fact that all seven of the Tribe teams that had been cut Sept. 3 were reinstated to maintain gender equity within the department.  He also stressed that tough decisions still face the Athletics Department going forward, since the College has the responsibility of achieving gender equity by the 2022-23 school year.

“As tough as the first weeks have been, our student athletes, coaches, and staff are incredible, so there’s been a lot of joy in coming into this position,” Martin said. “Even as we work through tough issues, and the challenges are real that we face.”

Martin stated that he saw the Athletics department through three frames: equity, financial stability and excellence, and said that any future athletic decisions will be considered with all three of these frames in mind.  Additionally, he said that he will continue to engage the community in future athletics conversations, although some decisions could not be completely transparent, such as personnel matters.

Also at the meeting, senators confirmed Graham Pfeiffer ’21 as the new Secretary of Finance.