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Thursday, February 25, 2021

UF Supreme Court rules against partisan discrimination case

The case established precedent of partisan bias favoring majority-affiliate candidates

The UF Student Government Supreme Court couldn’t rule on a case of partisan bias due to insufficient evidence. However, it can hear future cases.

The court heard two cases Tuesday: one petitioning for mandatory interviews of all applicants applying for a vacant Senate seat, and the other calling for a review of the nomination of a Senator following a claim of political discrimination.

In a two-case hearing, the SG Supreme Court ruled unanimously against the claim of bias against applicants for Senate positions not affiliated with the majority party, currently the Gator Party. It also determined that future cases of discrimination can be heard by the court.

Following the McDonnell Douglas test, the court established suspicion of discrimination and unanimously ruled it has power to make legal decisions on biased appointments in the future. However, it decided in this case there was not adequate evidence of discrimination to make a ruling.

The court also voted in favor of conducting interviews of all candidates applying to fill an open Senate seat.

Mark Merwitzer, a 21-year-old UF political science junior, applied Jan. 29 to be considered for the vacant College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Senate seat. However, the SG Replacement & Agenda Committee, which conducts interviews for replacement Senate seats, denied his interview through an email stating the seat would be unfilled until a new Senator is elected in the Spring election, which is Feb. 23 and 24. 

Merwitzer argued the rejection of his interview was unconstitutional as it went against articles of the Student Senate Rules and Procedures, which state “the Replacement & Agenda Committee will interview all applicants for replacement Senate seats, and will recommend to the Senate the applicant the committee deems best suited for the seat.”

The court agreed with Merkwitzer’s case that the Replacement & Agenda Committee went against its rules in denying a candidate’s interview and unanimously ruled in favor of Merwitzer, granting that he must be provided with the opportunity to interview for a seat.

Merkwitzer submitted a follow-up case to the Supreme Court Thursday claiming the Replacement & Agenda Committee ignored the court’s ruling by not scheduling an interview. He asked for Senate to not hear or ratify the Spring election results because of an incomplete Senate board. Typically, election results are approved by Senate by a majority vote after the election. 

Alfredo Ortiz, a 21-year-old UF philosophy junior and the president of the Progressive Party, presented a second case to the Supreme Court after not being nominated for the then-vacant District D seat, which was appointed to Senator Aaron Chau on Feb. 9 in Senate.

Ortiz said the majority party discriminates against applicants by making decisions not only based on policy opinion and beliefs but also on party affiliation bias against minority-affiliated members, which goes against the UF Student Body Constitution prohibiting discrimination.

“It’s no secret that there is a culture of discrimination against non-majority party affiliated people,” Ortiz said. “It’s demonstrable, it’s visible, and it has real consequences.”

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Ortiz interviewed with the Replacement & Agenda Committee on Feb. 8 along with Aaron Chau and Daksha Vora, all applying for the District D seat. During the deliberations process, Ortiz’ name was not brought up. The committee added Chau to the agenda for permanent replacement of the District D seat in a 2-1 vote. 

Justice Soch said Chau and Ortiz were qualified candidates, as both previously held a seat in District D. Since 2019, Ortiz authored five pieces of legislation and sponsored two, while Chau did not author or sponsor any.

Ortiz argued he is more qualified than Chau during the hearing. He said by not taking part in any legislative pieces, Chau did not effectively use the position and therefore is not the best qualified to hold a Senate seat. Ortiz said this proves Chau’s appointment to the seat was not objective and was biased. 

Ortiz later clarified that Chau wasn’t necessarily unqualified for the position, but there is systemic bias against non-majority applicants for positions appointed by the Replacement & Agenda Committee, he said.

Chau did not answer The Alligator’s email asking about his qualifications and time in the Senate.

Ortiz gathered data from past election results and Replacement & Agenda Committee minutes and found that of all candidates applying for permanent replacement seat vacancies over the past roughly two years, 98.5% of them ultimately affiliated with the majority party, and one in every three had run with the party prior to the interview process.

The Supreme Court does not interpret the processes through which a candidate is chosen, what makes a candidate best-suited or what “objectivity” entails in the context of selecting a candidate, Justice Preston Jones said. However, Ortiz asked the Supreme Court to recognize a culture of systemic bias and discrimination against the non-majority party affiliates.

Chief Justice Kyle Soch determined the court could not rule in favor of this case because it did not show evidence that the petitioner had suffered from party affiliation discrimination. However, the court can hear future cases of discrimination. 

Justice Jones argued Aaron Chau was qualified, demonstrating that the appointment does not indicate discrimination. Justice Jonathan Nickas also said there was no proof Chau was unfit for the position, and a claim of bias would mean all Senators previously appointed by the Replacement & Agenda Committee had to be reviewed.  

Justice Soch differentiated Ortiz’s case from Merwitzer’s case by stating the second proved violation of rules stating all candidates must be interviewed, unlike in Ortiz’s case, in which there was no evidence to show his candidacy was not heard objectively. 

Ortiz said he respectfully disagreed with the final ruling, but commended the professionalism of the Supreme Court in agreeing that the court can have jurisdiction to hear discrimination cases.

“We have established a mechanism through which people who feel they have been discriminated against because of their political affiliations can go through in order to try to find relief,” Ortiz said.

Alexander Lugo contributed to this report.

Contact Carolina Ilvento at cilvento@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @CarolinaIlvento.

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Carolina Ilvento

Carolina is a second-year journalism major with a minor in sustainability. In the past, she covered stories and events for WUFT, and she is now reporting on Student Government for The Alligator. Carolina loves to do yoga and go to the beach whenever she isn't writing.


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