Winston Churchill once described democracy as "the worst system . except for all the others."
With speculation swirling about UNC's Honor Court proceedings, some faculty and students might understand the relevance of Churchill's quote to UNC, as many say the student-led judicial system has its benefits and its drawbacks.
The debate centers on whether students' rights are compromised under a system in which judge and jury are fellow students, not professionals, who answer directly to the Instrument for Student Judicial Governance, not the due process laws that protect the accused in a criminal or civil proceeding.
Bob Adler, a professor in the Kenan-Flagler Business School and chairman of UNC's Committee on Student Conduct, said the University's judicial system strives to uphold a person's rights.
But he said the judicial system at UNC, just as at any judicial level, is never immune to mistakes. "It is absolutely not a perfect system, but there is nothing systematically bad about UNC's judicial system," Adler said. "I'm a believer in having students run the system."
UNC's judicial system has been hotly debated since the Honor Court, in an open hearing, found two of James Coggins' Computer Science 120 students guilty of academic cheating.
When there is a possible Honor Code violation, the University requires a faculty member or student to bring charges to Student Attorney General Taylor Lea or the vice chancellor for student affairs.
Lea speaks with both parties involved and then decides whether to send the case to the Honor Court, which acts as a jury would in a court trial. Before a case even goes before the five-person Honor Court panel, an associate attorney general meets with the person being charged in a preliminary conference.
The associate outlines students' rights in the Instrument for Student Judicial Governance, the 36-page document of UNC's judicial branch. "The associate attorney general's whole job is to make sure students' rights are upheld," Lea said.
Valerie Alter, one of UNC's three managing associate generals, said the Instrument's wording of students' rights is difficult to understand at times. "The language of the Instrument can be confusing, so the associates go through it step by step," Alter said. "It's the associate's job to advocate students' rights."
In the final stage of pre-hearing proceedings, the associate attorney general assigns the accused student a defense counsel, who represents the defendant in the Honor Court hearing.
Honor Court adviser Melissa Exum said it is important for students to know their rights.
"It can be overwhelming (for the accused)," Exum said. "That's why they need to rely on their counsels."
Despite the important role that student defense counsels play, law Professor Robert Byrd said some criticize the absence of professional attorneys in Honor Court proceedings.
But Byrd, who has served as chairman of the Committee on Student Conduct in the past, said having professional counsel would undermine UNC's student judicial process, making the system operate more like a criminal process.
Robert Mosteller, a law professor at Duke and UNC's student attorney general in 1970, voiced similar concerns. "When considering the right to counsel, it is very difficult for it to be professional and still be student-run," Mosteller said. "It's an inherent problem in any kind of student-run judicial process. If students are to be in charge, they may have to be held to a lesser standard."
In addition to the dispute over counsel, the right to a separate trial is another student right that has been discussed heavily, especially in light of the computer science hearings in which students' cases have been heard in groups.
Senior Evelyn Salazar, one of the 24 computer science students turned in by Coggins, had her case held in a closed hearing grouped with several other students.
After her case, she said the Honor Court proceedings need to be re-examined. "It's such a messy situation," Salazar said. "I think all the students charged (in the computer science cases) will be appealing."
Because of the unusual number of charges in the computer science incident, Honor Court Chairwoman Helen Holmberg said many students had to waive their rights to a separate trial during their preliminary hearing.
Holmberg said the students who did not waive their rights to a separate trial had to understand that this decision could affect their rights to a speedy trial.
"To uphold one right, sometimes you have to sacrifice another," she said.
Holmberg said the extreme situation with the computer science cases is unusual and that greatly increasing the number of Honor Court members would be impractical.
Lea's role in the computer science open hearing is yet another issue in which students' rights have come into question.
Lea said some students have complained about her testifying in the case, but she said her role in the judicial process is often misconstrued.
Lea must decide whether to bring charges against an accused student. If she does so, anything a student says during the information-gathering process can be held against them.
Despite criticism of the present system, Lea said students are much more likely to get a fair trial from their fellow peers.
But because of the recent debate over students' rights, Lea said she is interested in learning ways of improving students' knowledge of their rights on campus. "The Instrument needs to be rewritten," she said. "It was definitely written by lawyers."
Adler, whose committee reviews the Instrument, said there have been extensive discussions over students' rights and how that relates to improving the system. "We are constantly trying to educate people," Adler said. "It's not easy to point a finger of blame, but we need to make sure there is more administrative, faculty and student support."
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