The monthlong stalemate between the Gator and Change Caucus has now roped in another branch of Student Government.
The UF Student Government Supreme Court ruled Monday to disregard the April 4 election of Sen. Oscar Santiago Perez (Change-District D) as Senate president and prohibit the Senate from meeting until leadership from the Gator and Change Caucus sign an agreement on how the Senate plans to move past its turbulence.
“I can't think of a time that's been more contentious,” Chief Justice Ryan Wiele said after the hearing. “I'm disappointed that we needed to take such extensive measures.”
The Change and Gator Caucus have each fueled an intensifying political standoff characterized by a perceived filibuster, quorum busts, the reinstatement of the retired Liberation Caucus and the illegitimate election of a Senate president since the Spring SG election results. The supreme court justices broke through the gridlock and encouraged the body to come to a resolution with its ruling.
“Until we receive that path forward, the injunction will stay in place so we don't have a disaster like Tuesday again and where the entire student body loses faith in one of its three branches of government,” Wiele said.
The April 10 hearing resulted from a petition filed by two former Gator Caucus senators, John Brinkman and Shelby Schultz, that disputed the validity of the recent Senate presidential election of Santiago Perez. Schultz didn’t attend the hearing; however, Brinkman was present alongside former Gator-affiliated senator and Director of External Affairs Noah Fineberg.
“It is imperative that this court exercise their power of judicial review, and make all attempts within their power to rectify the situation, so that once again, we can have three functioning branches of government,” Brinkman said during his presentation to the court.
Brinkman argued the April 4 election of Santiago Perez as Senate president violated the UF Student Body Constitution due to a lack of quorum as there were only 48 votes, and a quorum requires 51 present senators.
Brinkman also argued the recent dysfunction and quorum busts has made the body incapable of carrying out its duties, such as holding consistent public Senate and committee meetings, which infringes on his right as a student to address student body officials at public events, per the Sunshine Law.
Schultz has been unable to interview for an open Senate seat due to the Replacement and Agenda Committee’s repeated failure to meet quorum. Brinkman argued this violates Schultz’s right to apply for an open Senate seat and have representation in the Senate. Brinkman also requested the court order the members of the Replacement and Agenda Committee to meet to conduct interviews for vacant Senate seats.
As the Senate has yet to elect new Senate leadership, the Replacement and Agenda Committee is made up of predominantly Gator-affiliated senators. If the committee were to select nominations for vacant seats before Senate leadership elections, the Change Caucus could lose its newly secured majority. However, senators have to approve all nominations on the Senate floor.
Counter-petitioner Santiago Perez argued Brinkman doesn’t provide a concrete standing to petition the court in his argument and that his grievances should be addressed by the Senate, not the court.
“It is within the legislature's ability to handle these issues, and I would encourage the petitioner to be contacting their elected representatives, because these elected representatives are the ones that are closest to the student body,” Santiago Perez said.
Santiago Perez argued a quorum refers to the number of members present, not the number voting on a particular question, per the Roberts Rules of Order. Therefore, although the vote count for the Senate president April 4 was below 51, the vote was not an official evaluation of the quorum, invalidating Brinkman’s claims of an absence of a quorum. Santiago Perez also asserted that three senators inside the chamber didn’t participate in the vote, contributing to a quorum.
Also, Santiago Perez argued only the Senate has the authority to compel the attendance of its absent members per the UF Student Body Constitution. The court forcing the Replacement and Agenda Committee to meet would counter the long-standing respect for the principle of separation of powers, he said.
The justices ruled to dismiss Brinkman from the petition based on a lack of concrete standing and denied Brinkman’s request for the court to force the Replacement and Agenda Committee to meet.
“There’d be an egregious overstep on our part,” Wiele said regarding Brinkman’s request to ensure attendance.
Concerning Senate leadership elections, the court ruled to disregard the April 4 election of Santiago Perez as Senate president due to evidence suggesting the chamber didn’t have a quorum, which prohibits the Senate from conducting business, per the UF Student Body Constitution.
The Senate must hold Senate leadership elections at a time where a quorum is conclusively met, and the results won’t be in dispute, Wiele said.
“A quorum call is almost like a heightened motion,” Justice David Allen said. “When it’s raised, the Senate stops. The Senate counts quorum. The Senate determines that they have the constitutional authority to continue conducting business.”
The court also decided to place a temporary injunction on the Senate, barring the body from holding meetings until Gator and Change Caucus leadership sign an agreement confirming how the Senate plans to move forward and elect leadership, due to the court April 14 at 5 p.m.
While Santiago Perez was glad to see the court agreed with his counterarguments regarding Brinkman’s standing and the Replacement and Agenda Committee attendance, he was surprised by the court’s decision to place an injunction on the Senate.
“I do worry about what type of precedent this might set in terms of the court's powers in just being able to place a stay on the Senate and its committees,” Santiago Perez said.
Santiago Perez is concerned about how the injunction will affect the Budget and Appropriation Committee’s ability to make student organization funding decisions over the next few weeks, he said.
All justices expressed embarrassment toward the behavior of senators during the April 4 Senate meeting and urged the body to prioritize bipartisanship collaboration in the future.
“Aside from the procedural chaos that happened Tuesday night, there was a serious lack of human decency,” Allen said. “As a double Gator, who has been here since 2015, I've never seen anything this disappointing.”
Wiele also admitted that while the swearing-in of elected officials is only ceremonial, his decision to swear in Santiago Perez as Senate president April 4 was misinformed.
“What was misguided on my end was not to foresee the potential turmoil and fallout that would ensue,” he said. “I suppose I got caught up in the moment.”
Although Brinkman declined a request for comment after the hearing, Fineberg expressed concerns about the instability of the Senate. However, he was pleased with the court’s ruling and hopes to see the Change and Gator Caucus work toward reconciliation, he said.
“We have checks and balances for a reason,” Fineberg said. “The role [the Senate] plays in UF Student Government is of a critical importance, and to see it devolve into this circus, it’s not just upsetting, it's saddening.”
Contact Amanda at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @amandasfriedman.
Amanda Friedman is a senior journalism major and the Enterprise Editor at The Alligator. She previously wrote for the Avenue, Metro and University desks. When she isn't reporting, she loves watching coming-of-age films and listening to Ariana Grande.