By McKenna Middleton | Opinion Editor
Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s controversial confirmation process has brought up concerns about the partisanship of the U.S. Supreme Court and have been further ignited by Kavanaugh’s nomination, according to a study conducted by Pew Research Center. The role of a judicial body can be seen on all levels of government — even in the Student Government at Baylor University.
Baylor’s Student Court, the judicial branch of student government, has seven justices that preside over matters ranging from parking ticket appeals to disputes between organizations and their members to student government elections.
Plano senior Landon Dutra has been an Associate Justice on student court for one year and said he was drawn to the position because of the court’s power and responsibility to invoke tangible change in the lives of Baylor students.
“I got to see the court from within and see how, even if it’s a simple as working on a parking ticket, this is someone’s Baylor career. This is someone’s actual money, someone’s actual future,” Dutra said. “We have to look at it with a sense of empathy for each person coming in and look at it from everyone’s perspectives under the law that Baylor has and Baylor student government has put forth.”
Arlington senior Elizabeth Yelverton, chief justice and third-year member of Student Court, echoed these sentiments, emphasizing the importance of having a Student Court for students, made up of their peers.
“I think it’s really great to be part of an organization where you have a real impact on the quality of life of students even if it’s just a little parking ticket appeal, because we all understand. We’ve had issues with parking or anything else, and I think that’s really important,” Yelverton said.
Dallas senior Jon Abel, Deputy Chief Justice and third year member of Student Court, said the justices seek to balance their role as a intermediary for students and an impartial governing body. Since Student Court operates independently from Student Life or Parking Services, Abel said its justices are able to look at a case with a more holistic and impartial approach.
“Student Court is not an organization that is going out to make a difference. We’re not an organization that takes an active role in people’s lives,” Abel said. “But I think what we provide and what I’m most compelled by is an open, impartial body where students can bring their problems no matter how small they are, not to a position of authority, but to a board of their peers — to people just like them that happen to be in a position that can maybe make some sort of difference.”
Dutra, Abel and Yelverton said impartiality is the most important part of their job as Student Court justices, as well as the most crucial aspect of being a judge or justice on a higher court. Abel added that integrity plays a significant role in maintaining and directing impartiality.
“When you are put in a position where you have sway over the workings of someone’s life, integrity is absolutely crucial. It’s paramount. You cannot deal with them if you cannot deal honestly,” Abel said. “And with that comes impartiality because we’re in a weird place of being caught between two forces: we have to uphold the integrity of parking services, and we have to uphold the integrity of student government. At the same time, we can’t do that at the expense of students. We can’t just bulldoze them in order to uphold these statutes in order to uphold these rules.”
While Dutra agreed that impartiality should be the most important aim of a judge, he said he defines impartiality as upholding what the law says.
“That means upholding what the letter of the law says in the face of not only circumstances, no matter how mitigating they may be sometimes, and they may be mitigating enough to sway emotion, but you also have to be impartial in the face of scrutiny,” Dutra said.
All three justices agreed that impartiality must be paired with integrity because with the power a judge has over the lives of others comes immense responsibility. Abel said this even comes into play on the local scale of Student Court.
“There is someone overseeing what decisions we make, but to a certain extent, what we do is beyond reproach. We are the final say in a lot of what we do, so in order for those decisions to be made well, you have to have the kind of character that can allow you to make them in the proper way,” Abel said.
Yelverton said the nature of the Supreme Court as a more independent body raises the importance of integrity among justices.
“I think … the judicial branch is unique in that it is the branch that … is held accountable for their decisions, but not in the way that a senator would be or a president would be. It’s really, I think, key for them to weigh what decisions they’re making and what precedent they would be setting not against public opinion, but against what they believe is correct,” Yelverton said.
In the case of Kavanaugh, Dutra said the newly appointed justice’s ability to remain objective and fair on the Supreme Court is shown in his history as a judge.
“Once you are in the courtroom, I am confident that no matter who you are, if you are on the highest court in the land, that you will remain impartial despite what is going on or despite how partisan you may be in your background or in your past,” Dutra said. “I think his impartiality on the bench is seen in his track record of his numerous years of being a judge in this country.”
In contrast, Abel said he considered Kavanaugh’s comportment at the Senate hearings to attest to his inability to remain impartial.
“At the Senate judiciary hearing, he, I believe, demonstrated that he has neither the integrity nor the impartiality to be the kind of judge that I think he needs to be. His attacks were very, very partisan,” Abel said. “I would like to believe that justice Kavanaugh will bring that impartiality to the bench, and I hope he will. I have to believe that he will. But when you cannot even bring that impartiality to the job interview for the position … If there is one place that a judge should be nonpartisan it is in the interview to put him on the bench.”
Abel added that this impartiality must be paired with the humanity of the individual presiding over the courtroom.
“Impartiality does not mean leaving who you are at the door. Part of what makes justices valuable is that they are people. Otherwise, our jobs could just as easily be done by a robot,” Abel said. “What makes every individual justice valuable is that they bring their own perspectives and ideologies to the bench. They make decisions not only based on what the facts are but what experiences they bring to the table.”
All three Student Court justices alluded to the dangers of having a more partisan Supreme Court.
“I think if the Kavanaugh hearing demonstrates anything, it’s that the state of judgeship in this country is deeply, deeply partisan. Now it comes down to where you sit on the ideological spectrum,” Abel said. “Depending on who controls the Congress, depending on who’s running the hearings and making the decisions, you will or will not get confirmed based on a handful of cases … Part of all of this is that the increased partisanship of judicial appointments means that the court is, I feel, being turned less into an independent body and more into an extension of the senate.”
However, Yelverton suggested this partisanship can be fought by trying to come to a common understanding with those who sit on a different end of the political spectrum. She said it’s important to remember that both Democrats and Republicans want the same thing — to make America the best it can be — though they may have different ideas of how to reach that goal.
“II think it’s really important to have all of those different perspectives — at our level — to give the student body the right amount of representation, but even at the federal level to have those conversations and not have it just be one way,” Yelverton said.