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The J-Board: keeping student government in check

Last month’s SSMU electoral campaign brought forth a wave of optimistic agendas and interesting initiatives. Each candidate compellingly presented a plethora of changes that they would bring to the SSMU, should they be elected for the next academic year. Some voters are expectant to see this new VP team at work, some voters have retreated to oblivion after the election period, and some voters remain skeptical of these VPs’ ability to bring about change.  Overall, two nagging questions persist in people’s minds: Can they deliver? How will they deliver?

Here’s the breaking news: we don’t know. However,  while there is no way to ensure that they will keep their promises, there is a way to make sure that the newly elected follow the SSMU constitution every step of the way: the Judicial Board of Students’s Society of McGill University. Commonly known as the J-Board, this little-known SSMU body provides McGill students with a forum to challenge the unfair practices of SSMU members and committees, and is overseen by five full-time students from the McGill Faculty of Law. This means that whenever SSMU members transgress the constitution, by-laws, or policies, there will be consequences. Campaigning after the deadline? Think again. Manipulating financial policies? nice try. Bringing forth trivial questions at GAs? Well, that’s unfortunately legal.


About the J-Board

The existence of the J-Board traces back to the 1970s, and has arbitrated major developments and conflicts involving the SSMU ever since. In 1974, for instance, the J-Board helped define the General Assembly’s exact role through a ruling that ensured that only the SSMU Council could address the budgetary and financial issues of the Society. Although some have questioned its judge-selection and arbitration process over time, the J-Board has remained a central part of SSMU’s decision-making process, as it has determined the integrity of the SSMU’s constitution, and its procedural fairness.

Its creation signifies the Society’s recognition of a need for an unbiased interpretation of the Society’s regulations. As a result, every time the SSMU faces a conflict of interests when it arbitrates over the rules it sets, the J-Board fills the role of neutral observer, facilitating dispute resolution in accordance with the SSMU constitution’s clauses.

According to Josh Redel, current SSMU president, “The main purpose of the J-Board is to provide students with a mechanism of challenging decisions that have gone through official processes at SSMU. If they feel that something was completed in contradiction of one of the democratically created governance documents of the SSMU, the J-Board provides them a way of challenging those decisions.”

To Joel Kwon, the current J-Board Chief Justice, Article 30 of the SSMU constitution explains the scope of the J-Board’s mandate.

“More specifically, this section specifies that the J-Board has an effective power to invalidate acts of the SSMU and its constituents, if they are found to violate the Constitution and bylaws of the SSMU,” he said. “ We can declare invalid any act of council, any act of society, club, or groups.”

Beyond adjudicating SSMU-related cases, the J-Board also assists with other legal projects, such as the creation of a more informative website, and the drafting of SSMU’s constitutional amendments. Currently, the J-Board is seeking to create formal internal operating guidelines, and to raise its public awareness among students; its services are usually never advertised through any public medium, with the exception of the referenced sections of the SSMU Constitution and by-laws.

According to the turnout of recent SSMU Elections, fewer than one out of three students (29.1%) is interested in student politics, and probably even fewer know anything about  SSMU’s constitution. However, the SSMU is one of the best forums available for students to vocalize their interests and needs. More importantly, a functioning SSMU depends on a functioning checking body, like the J-Board, as well as on students who care about the issues.

In the spring of 2012, the J-Board was suspended on the basis that, according to the SSMU, the Board of Directors was supposed to be the highest authority of the Society, making its decisions final. This argument was presented to annul the J-Board’s invalidation of the Fall 2011 referendum results on the continuing existence of QPIRG and CKUT. The J-Board has since been reinstated, but its temporary suspension raises doubts on its stability. This suspension demonstrated the dangers of having a checking body that could easily be bypassed. If this trend were to continue, students could lose a key cornerstone of student democracy, and regret it if it silently disappears.


How can I keep SSMU in check?

Given the lack of information available on this important board, many students may ask, “how can I file a complaint to the J-Board if there is an issue that I want to bring to SSMU’s attention?” Here is the answer:


Become familiar with the rules

Familiarize yourself with the SSMU constitution, by-laws, and policies through their website. http://ssmu.mcgill.ca/about-us/who-we-are/consititution-and-bylaws


File your claim

Complete Form P-1, or “Notice of Petition,” found on SSMU’s website, and submit the petition to Chief Justice Joel Kwon at [email protected]. A paper copy of the form must also be submitted to the SSMU office no more than five days after the event, or after learning of the event.


Make your case

Within five days of submitting the P-1, submit a written statement, as well as documents that are relevant to your complaint. These should be sent in an electronic format to the Chief of Justice, and as hard copies to the SSMU office. If the J-Board accepts the petition, it will invite the Respondent to complete the R-1, or “Position of Respondent” addressing your complaint.


Attend the preliminary conference

The parties to the dispute will meet in a preliminary conference to discuss the issue informally, and set up a date for the hearing.


Attend the hearing

During the hearing, both the Petitioner and the Respondent will express their views. The J-Board will submit its written judgment within 15 days of the hearing.


Justice served!


What did the J-Board do last year?

Bangs vs. Calver and Cheng

In April 2012, Christopher Bangs was the chair for “No” Committee on the 2012 AUS referendum. Bangs filed a petition to McGill’s Judicial  Board against Jade Calver, the former President of Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS), and Victor Cheng, the former Chief Returning Officer of Elections AUS. This case involved the contestation of the legitimacy of two questions passed during the AUS 2012 Winter Referenda. Bangs based his case on Calver and Cheng’s failure to fully comply with AUS by-laws during the campaign period. The by-law specifies a six-day voting period and Bangs argued that the shortened campaign period of five days undermined the results of the elections. This case was ultimately dismissed by the J-Board, as Bangs failed to establish why the timing of the referendum significantly prevented reasonable voters from adequately participating in the voting process.


Newburgh and Steven vs. Tacoma

In January 2012, Zach Newburgh, former SSMU president, and Brendan Steven filed a petition against Rebecca Tacoma, former chief electoral officer of SSMU regarding the referendum period that ran from Nov. 4, 2011 to Nov. 10, 2011. The petitioners contested the Fall 2011 referendum question on the continuation of the Quebec Public Interest Research Group of McGill (QPIRG) on the grounds of constitutional invalidity. This issue was twofold: the petitioners questioned whether the QPIRG question was constitutional, and whether Tacoma exercised sufficient due diligence in her handling of the Fall 2011 referendum. In the end, the J-Board decided to accept the petition in part, invalidating QPIRG’s referendum question on the grounds that “it deals with two issues, instead of one as required by the Constitution.” However, it also upheld the Tacoma’s claim that she was respectful, impartial, and diligent with respect to her supervisory role of the referendum period. Although the J-Board was temporarily suspended by SSMU during the petition, its decision was later endorsed by SSMU president Maggie Knight, and ratified by SSMU Board of Directors


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