SG holds impeachment trial

The USF Judicial Review Committee heard the arguments of Chief Justice Sarah Heikkinen and Attorney General Cordell Chavis during Heikkinen’s impeachment trial Tuesday afternoon.

The hearing followed the Student Government (SG) Senate’s decision in April to impeach Heikkinen on two charges brought forward by Chavis. 

The committee, with members appointed by the senate and the student body president, will decide today whether to remove Heikkinen from her position.

The two charges for which Heikkinen was impeached involve a judicial branch trip to Washington,  D.C., and her alleged refusal to recuse herself from a court case toward which she had previously expressed bias.

The first charge

During the January trip to Washington, D.C., Heikkinen, the seven other justices and the judicial clerk visited several universities and the United States Supreme Court. They also attended the presidential inauguration.

The purpose of the trip, Heikkinen said, was to study the Academic Integrity Programs and judicial branches at American University, Georgetown University and Washington University as well as attend a Supreme Court hearing.

“I think that it is very important for us to see how other systems work, whether they’re not similar to us or very similar to us,” Heikkinen said. “By seeing different ways of doing things, that’s how we will improve.”

The benefit of the trip, as stated in the travel authorization request, was to see the presidential inauguration. 

Heikkinen said that seeing the presidential inauguration was an “extra” benefit, and that she identified it on the pre-travel documents to be “upfront and honest about everything that was happening.”

“Had anyone had an issue with the trip, they could have maybe voiced it to me in the five months in advance that we had been planning it,” Heikkinen said. “But nobody had anything to say previously.”

The articles of impeachment stated that by allegedly not applying the information she learned on the trip at USF, Heikkinen violated an SG statute stating that funded trips must directly “improve the Organization, university, or state of of Florida.”

This accusation is false, Heikkinen said, as the judicial branch has continued meeting with the Academic Integrity Committee after the trip.

“Our work with Academic Integrity has not stopped,” Heikkinen said. “We are currently working with Undergraduate Studies right now, making Academic Integrity videos for the freshman students incoming.”

Chavis, representing SG as the plaintiff, said that the primary purpose of the trip was to see the presidential inauguration and that Heikkinen “misused student fees for her own self interest and gratification.”

Heikkinen testified that this was not the case.

“We left on Friday (Jan. 16) and returned on Wednesday (Jan. 21) because that was the cheapest plane ticket available that fell on a time period that we could do everything that we wanted to,” she said. “We were able to be off of school on Martin Luther King Day, so that was the least amount of classes that we would miss.”

Chavis also stated that the judicial branch changed the original dates of the trip from spring break to the week of the presidential inauguration. 

Heikkinen said the justices had considered going during spring break, but after doing a cost-benefit analysis, decided that hotel rooms and plane tickets were too expensive for the month of March.

“Had our trip fallen on any other weekend in January, February, or March, where we would have gotten the best deal, we would have gladly gone then,” Heikkinen said. “We originally wanted just the best weekend where everybody could … not miss as many classes and … save as much money as possible.”

Heikkinen said that because the justices began planning the trip months in advance, they were able to save money.

Chavis said one of the universities the judicial branch visited, Georgetown University, does not have a judicial branch. Heikkinen said that while this is true, Georgetown does have a student affairs system that carries out similar duties.

The judicial branch visited American University on Jan. 19, when the university was closed for Martin Luther King Day. Though classes were not in session, Heikkinen said the library, student center and residence halls remained open for the justices to visit.

Chavis said that Heikkinen misused an “egregious amount of student funds” and abused the travel allocation process “for her own personal gain.”

The trip cost $3,436 in total.

The second charge

The second charge involved Heikkinen’s refusal to recuse herself from a court case regarding a topic toward which she had allegedly expressed bias.

During the student body elections, a student was disqualified from running for a senate seat because she failed to turn in her application on time. 

In an e-mail response to this decision, Heikkinen said her “opinion is too late to change the outcome,” but she “disagreed with the result.”  

Heikkinen continued, saying “instead of being compassionate and understanding of what may have been a girl rushing at the end of her day to get here, we are turning her away.”

In doing this, Chavis said Heikkinen broke the judicial code of ethics, including statute 503.6.7, which states that “a Justice shall not make any non-public comment that might interfere with a fair trial or hearing.”

“By making an opinion toward an issue that may or may not appear before the supreme court, and the issue did indeed appear before the supreme court in a student vs. Student Government (case) related to election issues … the chief justice did not obey the statutes,” Chavis said.

Heikkinen said she realized that she should be more “diligent” in making sure her personal opinions are not misconstrued. She said the opinion she stated was not directed at the Election Rules Commission (ERC) or any specific person in SG.

“It was an e-mail specifically stating that overall the process that was used to decide this and to eliminate somebody from Student Government proceedings was, I thought, unfair,” Heikkinen said.

In a following e-mail, Heikkinen stated that she had “gotten pretty involved in this subject matter” and would “have no problem recusing” herself from hearings if the case came to court.

Later, when presiding over cases involving the ERC and the general election, Heikkinen allegedly did not recuse herself when asked by Deputy Attorney General Janet Rojas, who was defending SG in the cases on behalf of the Office of Legal Affairs.

During the impeachment trial, Rojas testified that Heikkinen did not disclose her bias prior to the case, thereby violating SG statute 503.8, which states that “a Justice shall disclose information that parties might consider relevant to the question of recusal, even if the Justice believes there is no actual basis for recusal.”

Rojas also testified that when she originated the motion for Heikkinen to recuse herself that the chief justice was “surprised” and that some of the justices were “mad,” making Rojas feel uncomfortable.

Chavis said that when this occurred, Heikkinen violated SG statute 503.6.3, which states that a justice shall be “patient, dignified and courteous,” and require similar conduct of the other justices.

“In regards to the trial procedures where Janet was feeling uncomfortable … we were taken aback by the fact that she brought that up in the middle of a trial,” Heikkinen said. “In the middle of a trial, the attorney general walked in and gave (Rojas) a document and she just announced it right away.”

Heikkinen said she did not believe that the court was “rude in any way” to Rojas and that the justices decided that it was “irrelevant” for Heikkinen to recuse herself.

“Even though the trials brought before the court were not regarding the e-mail chain,” Heikkinen said. “I understand that it is important for a justice to remain unbiased towards any entity of Student Government.”

Implications of the committee’s decision

Because of what transpired with the Washington, D.C. trip, Chavis said SG needs to review its process for consideration of travel.

“Yes, the process did fail to prevent an egregious amount of student funds from being abused,” Chavis said. “Simply because the process allows you to do something that is wrong, does not necessarily mean that what you are doing is right.”

Heikkinen also noted the implications the committee’s decision will have on SG.

“This whole process has taught me a lot about where (SG) has been going as an organization,” Heikkinen said. “And I just really hope that no matter what the decision of this committee is, that Student Government follows through on the impacts that their individual decisions have made.”

Heikkinen said that if she felt that she had committed any wrongdoing, she would have resigned from her position.

“I would never have continued in the process had I truly been biased or dishonest in my actions,” Heikkinen said. “I would have never put myself under such scrutiny … if I had not truly, sincerely believed that I had not done something that was unfair against the
student body.”