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Davis, California

Monday, September 20, 2021

Guest Opinion

What makes a body or system of law legitimate?

When you drive your car up to an intersection and reflexively halt at the stop sign, why do you do it? It isn’t because the imposing red octagon frightens you, nor is it because the word “stop” commands you to do so.  You stop because you recognize the associated traffic code carries with it the force of law, and you acknowledge the legitimacy and steadfastness of that law.

We as members of a student government pretend at being legislators and arbiters of law. We hold meetings, bang gavels, and write and pass legislation, but at the end of the day, we’re not true politicians; only pretenders.

However, in maintaining this charade, we agree to consent to the ASUCD constitution and ASUCD bylaws. This may seem foolish to onlookers. There is no true punishment for breaking a bylaw. There are no ASUCD police who will apprehend you and place you in ASUCD jail. Rather, we consent to be governed by said bylaws because we recognize their legitimacy in maintaining the fairness and impartiality of our association. Furthermore, in mirroring our student government in the image of the United States Federal Government, we implicitly acknowledge the value and worth of the American model of Democracy, and the separation of powers imbued therein.

In “Federalist No. 51” James Madison advocated the need for a separation of powers, “separate and distinct exercise of the different powers of government … essential to the preservation of liberty.”  He spoke of the desire for a balanced executive, one that could not wield infinite power at its discretion.

As members of this association, we too affirm the need for distributed powers among the branches to keep each in their proper place.

All this philosophical background is meant to illustrate a pressing issue. At the end of last spring, ASUCD Senator Yara Zokaie absconded off to San Diego to begin her career at law school. Though she is across the state, she still retains her seat as a senator.

Is this right? Most likely not. Zokaie swore to continually represent the UC Davis student body throughout her tenure as a senator, something she cannot be reasonably expected to do from across the state.  However, that’s not for me, nor ASUCD President Rebecca Sterling, to decide.

If a member of the association is in violation of our laws, they ought to be referred to the ASUCD Supreme Court, the ultimate arbiters of the ASUCD constitution. However, rather than do the rational and procedurally correct thing, our president has taken the unprecedented and drastic step of attempting to forcibly remove Zokaie from her seat.

In any real government, this would be unacceptable. Such a move by the executive would invalidate the separation of powers, rendering the result of a fair election in which a senator was popularly chosen utterly meaningless. Such a step would represent the beginning of a slide into an authoritarian regime and a total collapse of all the values inherent to a democracy. This is wrong, and I cannot support it, because I believe in the value of a fair democratic process.

In the end, it all comes down to competing claims of legitimacy. Sterling may have a point when she argues that Zokaie’s actions have made the association look illegitimate.

However, I ask you to consider which is worse: a one-time instance of a senator shirking their responsibility which can be rectified, or a president setting a dangerous precedent by flaunting the constitution meant to govern her, and permanently breaching the separation of powers so crucial to maintaining our association.

I for one will not abide such a step. I say here and now, if this unlawful process continues unabated, I will seek the immediate recall of our president, and should I fail, I myself will resign my position. Because I for one love this student government, and will not see it delegitimized thusly.


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