In a given week, roughly five students' academic fates are decided behind closed doors by a jury composed of their fellow students.
Last month, those normally closed doors were thrust open when senior Mike Trinh and junior Brianne Roth opened their Honor Court hearing, giving students and professors a chance to decide for themselves whether UNC's student-run judicial system is adequate.
But the jury is still out on whether students are intellectually and psychologically capable of dispensing justice to their peers.
Student Attorney General Taylor Lea said she is proud that UNC's judiciary branch is one of 12 in the nation run entirely by students.
"Our system is way more pro-student than in any other schools," she said. "I would trust members of the Honor Court to hear just about anything."
But John Clark, a senior who said Lea had recently notified him that he might have violated the Honor Code, said the Honor Court needed changes, including accountability and better training. "Generally, these are secret proceedings," he said. "There is no accountability; they could do anything they wanted in there."
UNC's Honor Court serves as a jury in hearings when a student is charged with an Honor Code violation.
The court can hear cases that involve cheating, forgery, disorderly conduct, rape, trespassing, assault and drug possession charges. If the Honor Court delivers a guilty ruling, it issues punishments ranging from censure to expulsion.
A spot on the 55-person Honor Court requires undergraduates to answer six essay questions, participate in two 30-minute interviews and undergo 11 hours of training, said Helen Holmberg, Honor Court chairwoman.
Holmberg said the Honor Court is composed of a diverse group of students, including one from each academic department. She also said grade point average is not a factor in securing a spot on the Honor Court. "I think they are all capable," Holmberg said.
But after last month's open Honor Court hearing, some professors and students say an Honor Court composed solely of students is not a fair method of implementing legal justice.
Trinh and Roth decided to open their Sept. 28 hearing after being charged with cheating, along with about 20 other students from Professor James Coggins' Computer Science 120 class.
Trinh, who was found guilty, is appealing the decision.
Journalism Professor Chuck Stone, who teaches classes dealing with censorship and the Constitution, said students are not equipped to serve as a jury in such serious cases. "It's an egregious abuse of justice," Stone said. "These kids don't know anything about rules of evidence, competent counsel or the right not to testify against yourself."
Under the system, one Honor Court member serves as the hearing's chairman, which could be equated to the judge in a civil or criminal case. Clark said judges in local and state courts must have gone to law school and have more than 10 years of experience.
Clark compared these student chairmen to a court of law. "Either they (would not) have enough training to be a judge or (would) have too much to be a juror," he said. "(Honor Court members) don't have to have any skill," he said.
But Winston Crisp, School of Law assistant dean for student affairs and member of the Undergraduate Hearings Board, said the system offered effective peer justice. "I actually think we've got one of the better student judicial systems around," he said. "More often than not, the student boards get it right."
Law Professor Brian Bromberger said there is no evidence that students are not capable of remaining unbiased and being responsible. "I've found that students in positions of trust in that nature do a wonderful job and are very responsible," he said. "In fact, (they are) often tougher than academics."
But psychology Professor Louis Gariepy said students lack the maturity and life experiences to make such significant decisions about their peers' futures. "I would not feel comfortable having 100 percent students decide the fate of who has to face these charges," he said. "It takes time, it takes maturity, it takes experience."
Gariepy researches development and evolution of social behavior and the biological and behavioral aspects of social adaptation. "It's not entirely certain that students are equipped to make an assessment with this degree of gravity."
He said that although students on the Honor Court might want to remain fair, sometimes young people lack the psychological capabilities to do so.
"Impartiality does not arise simply out of the will to be impartial," he said. "Goodwill and honesty are not enough."
Holmberg said students join the Honor Court to meet a diverse group of people, to contribute to the University and, in some cases, for improving their resume. She said these students devote much of their time to hearing about five cases in a semester.
Lea said it was to charged students' advantage to have other students hear their cases because their peers are more likely to sympathize than a professor.
But Gariepy said the belief that fellow students are more understanding than faculty is an adolescent bias as to how students perceive adults. "(Faculty) may be more capable of sympathy or empathy," Gariepy said.
But Crisp said the current checks on the judicial system are sufficient to handle any situation in which the Honor Court makes an inaccurate ruling.
"Certainly there are going to be different levels of maturity in different people," Crisp said. "These are young people, and that's why there is a system of checks and balances."
Under the current system, Crisp said, students found guilty of an Honor Code violation can appeal to three higher levels, all of which include faculty.
The first appeal is to a panel that includes faculty and students. The second level of appeals is to the chancellor or a representative of the chancellor, and the third is to the Board of Trustees.
He said faculty who hear the appeal would examine if there was sufficient evidence in the case, if the student's rights were upheld and if the sanction was inordinately harsh.
But Stone said the system needs to be revamped to include more administrative checks and balances, including a lawyer at hearings. "It's not an honor court; it's a kangaroo court," he said. "There has to be an overhaul. It cannot continue to exist - the punishments are too severe."
Lea, however, said the attorney general's office is not far detached from UNC faculty and staff.
Lea said she sometimes seeks advice from Crisp, business Professor Bob Adler or Senior UNC Counsel Susan Ehringhaus when dealing with Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act violations.
The act, which surfaced in the computer science cases, protects students' rights of privacy in relation to personal educational records.
Faculty and staff also participate in the appeals process. Adler, business professor and chairman of the Committee on Student Conduct, said if the Honor Court makes a mistake, there are effective corrective measures.
"The system has lots of protections for students," he said. "I like that faculty and staff are at the appellate level."
Emily Thorn, the judicial programs assistant, said overturned appeals are rare. "As a general rule, the ruling of the court is upheld by the Undergraduate Hearings Board," she said.
She said the hearings board would be more likely to adjust a sanction. Crisp added that "the student body would have a stroke" if the system was changed to directly include faculty in Honor Court hearings.
Clark agreed that the power should stay in the students' hands, but law professors should serve as judges instead of students and Honor Court members need to be held accountable for their decisions.
Clark, whose criminal charges have already been dismissed in a local court, said, "You can rest assured that if I'm charged, then I'll have (my hearing) open. It will be a fiasco."
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