SSMU suspends Judicial Board, citing legal concerns

Elisha Lerner / McGill Tribune

Last Thursday, the SSMU Board of Directors (BoD) suspended the Judicial Board indefinitely due to legal issues arising from its current structure. 

The structure of the J-Board was reviewed by the Bylaw Committee Jan. 30, and the committee’s findings will be discussed in a meeting of the BoD this Thursday, Feb. 2. 

On Jan. 30, the J-Board was scheduled to hear a case proposed by students Zach Newburgh and Brendan Steven on the constitutionality of the fall referenda.

“We first went to talk to our lawyer about this case because [SSMU] had never had a case where a J-Board case had to determine whether a vote by members needed to be overturned or not,” VP University Affairs Emily Yee Clare explained to the Tribune.

According to the SSMU Constitution, the J-Board is the highest authority in SSMU, capable of overturning any decision made by any other body within SSMU. However, under the Quebec Companies Act, the Board of Directors has to be the highest governing body in SSMU and nothing can limit the power of the BoD.

If the J-Board had ruled to overturn the student referendum, the decision would negate the role of the BoD as maximum authority and therefore violate Quebec law. Because the structure of J-Board was not revised in the SSMU Constitution since the BoD was instituted as the highest legal authority by law, its existence has also been illegal since then.

Additionally, SSMU is bound as a student union by the Quebec Accreditation Act. Under this act, every member of SSMU has the right to a binding and representative vote through referenda. Overturning the vote would also involve retroactively taking away students’ right to vote. By invalidating a vote, any student who had voted in the referendum could sue SSMU for not following its constitution or Quebec law, Clare explained.

The Board of Directors was instituted as a separate body by the SSMU General Assembly in fall 2011 due to Quebec law, which requires a board comprised of only Canadian citizens or permanent residents for the society to retain its liquor license. Currently, the BoD is comprised of SSMU executives and council members, meets during SSMU Council, and typically ratifies decisions made by the Council.

Clare received a memo from SSMU’s lawyer on Wednesday Jan. 25 outlining the legal issues and decided to bring the matter to Council.  

During Council, debate centred on whether to allow the J-Board hearing to continue and then review the legality of the process, or to reform the structure of the J-Board first.

Law Senator Ian Clarke expressed concerns about suspending the J-Board.

“I don’t think we should set the precedent that whenever council feels uncomfortable with a decision they should just overturn it,” he said.

Other councilors argued in favour of suspending the J-Board.

“Currently our organizational structure is not legal … I don’t think we can just put that [on] the back burner,” Adam Winer, Clubs and Services Representative, said.  

“[We should] first clarify our constitution so everybody is aware of who has final authority, and if petitioners want to reapply to the J-Board, they can do so,” Sam Latham, management councilor, said. 

After much debate, SSMU Council voted to suspend the J-Board with 13 votes in favour, six votes opposed, and four abstentions. 

Clare emphasized that SSMU intends to restart the J-Board.

“It’s important to have some form of J-Board and we don’t want to completely remove that from SSMU,” Clare said. “We just want to make sure that it’s functioning, it protects our members, and it protects the interests of SSMU in the long run.”

The By-Law committee met Monday Jan. 30 to begin a review process to restructure the J-Board. 

SSMU President Maggie Knight outlined the commitee’s initial suggestions, which include a referendum question to amend the SSMU constitution and clarify the role of the J-Board, its relationship to the BoD, and its compliance with Quebec law. In the short term, SSMU intends to allow the current J-Board case to proceed soon, possibly before the referendum question that would amend the constitution. 

“What we’re trying to do is [reach a decision] in the shortest time possible so that everything can proceed in a way that is fair for everybody,” she said. 

 

Justices surprised by suspension

“The SSMU’s decision caught us off-guard.  Before receiving this email, we had no reason to believe that the J-Board would be suspended,” David Parry, Chief Justice of the SSMU J-Board wrote in an email to the Tribune on behalf of the entire J-Board. 

“We have requested justification from the SSMU for their decision, and are still waiting for a satisfactory explanation,” he added. “As more information becomes available, we will decide what steps, if any, need to be taken, bearing in mind that many people have put in extensive work in the case to bring it this far.”

Parry added that the members of the J-Board requested to participate in discussions regarding the J-Board’s future, but that SSMU requested that they only be present for the first portion of the discussion.

Petitioner Brendan Steven could not be reached for comment at the time of press. 

Case respondent and Elections SSMU CEO Rebecca Tacoma declined to comment on the suspension of the J-Board. She noted that the J-Board case may not affect the winter referendum period.

“It has to be kept in mind that simply because allegations are made, this does not necessarily mean they are valid,” Tacoma said.

 

–Additional reporting by Erica Friesen

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