Fairness of judicial hearings questioned

By Matt Gilbert and Markos Moulitsas

The hearing procedures of the Student Judicial Code have been criticized because students are represented by student advocates while NIU is represented by professionals.

“I think we really need to take a look at the (judicial) code book,” Collin Halliman, SA minority relations adviser and a judicial advocate, said at Sunday’s Student Association meeting.

“A lot of the regulations are very vague. They are left open to a real wide interpretation. It’s usually not on behalf of the students who are accused.”

Halliman also questioned the propriety of the way cases are presented. “Do you think it’s fair that a professional presenter presents the case for the administration while an advocate, who is usually inexperienced, defends a student?”

Some of Halliman’s sentiments were echoed by other student advocates. Most are serving their first semester as advocates. Most have yet to take a case, and of the ones who have, fewer have brought a case before a hearing board.

While student advocate Nolen Hendreson agreed with Halliman’s view that the presentation process was unfairly tilted toward the university, he felt it was a good system and enjoyed working with the people in the Judicial Office. Hendreson would not say how many cases he has taken to a hearing, or how his clients have fared.

“The system is more lenient to those who have questionable alternatives,” Hendreson said. “It’s better than sending them to jail.

“The presenter has been doing this for some time,” Hendreson said. He said the presenter is a professional person who is “tough by skill and experience.”

But Halliman suggested NIU follow the lead of other judicial systems throughout the nation that have student-to-student presenters or professional presenters on both sides.

Halliman said some of the cases are detrimental to academic careers. He said a lot of students come up for academic suspension and dismissal for petty incidents. Judicial decisions affect financial aid and students’ ability to finish their education in a timely fashion, Halliman said.

However, advocate Eric Borman said he thought the system was fair. “If you try hard enough, you’ll get the truth to come out. The board will make the right decision.”

Larry Bolles, director of the university Judicial Office, said the student advocate system was fair as well.

“Advocates win some cases,” Bolles said.

He said the win-loss ratio of student advocates in judicial hearings was unrepresentative of their effectiveness for several reasons.

Bolles said many cases handled by student advocates were settled without a hearing, with the advocate persuading him the student was either innocent of the charges brought up against him or that the charges proposed were too severe.

“In cases such as those, there are no winners or losers,” Bolles said. Still, he said such cases testified to the effectiveness of the advocates.

He also said many of the students who go to hearing boards do so because they are guilty, but want to reduce their punishment, especially if they face moving out of their dorms.

“Some students feel they have nothing to loose,” he said.

University Legal Counsel George Shur said the Supreme Court has laid down a ruling that stated due process in an academic setting consists of informing the student of what the charges are, what the potential sanctions may be and allowing the student to tell his side of the story.

Shur said the Supreme Court’s ruling didn’t seem fair to him. “Our code goes much further than that.

“(The code) is not a legal issue anymore,” Shur said. “It has been challenged twice in the last four or five years in court. Both times it’s been found to be perfectly legal.

In his position, Shur said he was preoccupied only with the legality of the code and not its practicality.

“Is it a code that meets the needs of the community? That’s not for me to decide,” Shur said.

“The perception of fairness is as important as fairness itself. If you don’t believe you are being treated fairly, then it is something we need to look at closely.”