Procedure Wars: Cotton v. Stovall

The Texas Tech Student Supreme Court will render an opinion this weekend on Cotton v. Stovall, the latest installment of the 2013-14 election dispute. Chief Justice Ralston Rollo said to expect it before the court-ordered injunction on election campaigning is set to expire at 11:59 p.m. Sunday.

The Hunt Courtroom in the Texas Tech School of Law was almost full with spectators and interested parties, The complainants (civil appeal terminology, as opposed to prosecutors or plaintiffs) were represented by Sean Buckley, a third-year law student, while the respondants (as opposed to defendants) were represented by John Roddy Pace and Will Echols, both first-year law students.

Buckley was given first argument, and he used the time allotted to establish his clients’ claims quickly: the Election Commission not only overstepped its boundaries of power as laid out in the Election Code of 2013, it also failed to follow proper procedure in several steps of the election process, such as failing to give ALL candidates the Code-mandated notice of violation penalties and examples of the violations that warrant each penalty, as well as how Bridge the Gap representatives failed to amicably negotiate grievances with Raiders United before filing their grievance with the Commission.

During Buckley’s argument, the Justices of the Court peppered Buckley with questions about his claims — since the vote is online, is a computer considered a polling place, and thus, should e-mail correspondence be considered campaign material? Should the hearsay laws of Texas and the United States be considered precedent for SGA? Aside from procedure, what facts support overturning the case? — and listened with rapt attention to his claims.

Buckley encouraged the court to remand or revise the Commission’s ruling, to either overturn the decision entirely and reinstate Jill Berger and Luke Cotton as executives or reduce the severity of their punishment.

Second, Stovall’s representatives Pace and Echols alternated argument time to each establish their own portion of the case. Pace began first, explaining how the Election Chairman, Bradley Schniers, assured Stovall et al that they did not need to consult Raiders United before filing a grievance, and how it can be assumed that — without strict language inside of the Election Code saying otherwise — it can be assumed that the Commission, like both the legislative and judicial branches of the SGA, has the power to suspend its own rules. Justices of the Court questioned this assumption.

During the respondents’ argument, the court questioned the severity of harm to Bridge the Gap’s campaign. One of the key pieces of evidence in the case is an e-mail sent by the University Fountains leasing manager to all residents of the apartment complex encouraging them to vote, which is considered “spamming.” The Court posited that, if every occupant of University Fountains had voted for Luke Cotton, and all those votes were dismissed from the spamming charge, Cotton would still win by over a hundred votes. With an election that only had roughly four thousand voters, one hundred is still enough to cinch a majority and win.

Stovall’s representatives urged the Court to uphold the Commission’s decision based on the factual evidence that the Code was broken and there is no strict language prescribing penalties for the Commission neglecting its own rules.

Given the “last word” in the hearing, Buckley and the complainants returned to deliver a response to the respondents’. Buckley upheld his claims that the respondents had neglected the election code and thus rendered the Commission hearing unlawful because they did not attempt to peacefully negotiate grievances before filing, and pointed out that — earlier in the election campaigns — his clients had gone to Bridge the Gap and peacefully negotiated a grievance.

“Saying that a reasonable compromise couldn’t be reached is laughable,” he said. “Negotiation is possible.”

Buckley went on to explain that, by not providing election candidates with prescribed penalties and the violations warranting them — something lined out as a responsibility of the Commission before campaigning begins — the Commission had failed to provide due process and fair warning about the Code. He equated it to driving violations — most people don’t speed because they know they will receive a ticket or go to jail.

The Justices once again peppered Buckley with questions throughout his argument, including asking if the facts and merits of the case were to be thrown away simply by procedural misstep. A Justice, reading from the rules of the court, reminded the courtroom that the Court is obligated to uphold justice above any procedure or rule limitation.

Buckley finished his argument by once again encouraging the Court to consider that procedural misstep is what the process of judicial review is for — to ensure that the way and means are both equitable — and that it would stand to reason for the case to be remanded and revised.

After all three arguments concluded, Chief Justice Rollo thanked the representatives and clients for their time and assured the court that — with Spring Break coming and the moratorium on campaigning approaching — the Opinion of the Court would be released before 11:59 p.m. Sunday, the expiration time of the court’s injunction against campaigning.

About Anthony Hall
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