Union Judiciary rules against Student Union President after hearing
The Judiciary found that the Union President failed to effectively communicate with other branches and members of the Union, among other charges.
After a contentious hearing last Tuesday night, the Union Judiciary ruled against Student Union President Simran Tatuskar ’21, finding that she failed to communicate effectively across Union branches and unconstitutionally sidestepped the vice president and executive senator in deciding the role of the executive senator, according to the Judiciary’s formal opinion, which was released on Friday.
The Judiciary also found Union Vice President Guillermo Caballero ’20 in violation of the Union Bylaws for not properly communicating his disagreements to Tatuskar about her decision to bar Executive Senator Jake Rong ’21 from the Sept. 8 Executive Board meeting, as well as about the process for appointing Senate committee co-chairs.
The verdict marked a decisive victory for the petitioners — Caballero and Senior Representative to the Board of Trustees Zosia Busé ’20. They filed the complaint on Oct. 7 after “witnessing dynamics that were causing concern because of my past experience with E-Board,” Busé told the Justice in an interview on Oct. 13. One of the main concerns in the complaint stemmed from Tatuskar unilaterally barring Rong from attending the Sept. 8 E-Board meeting for which Caballero was unavailable.
Tatuskar claimed that this action was within her constitutional purview, but the Judiciary maintained in its opinion that she “acted against the Vice President’s constitutional duty to act as a liaison between the Senate and the Executive Board.” The Judiciary also ruled that Tatuskar “infringed [on] Exec Senator Rong’s Constitutional right to attend the Executive Board meeting in the Vice President’s stead.”
Article II, Section 4 (3), the part of the Union’s Constitution disputed in this case, says the Executive Senator should “assume the duties of the Union Vice President in the Vice President’s absence.”
Though the executive senator will not be a mandated position on the E-Board, the Judiciary decided that the vice presidential duties referenced in Article II, Section 4 (3) were not limited exclusively to Senate roles, but rather extended to “all of the roles under the purview of the vice president,” Associate Justice Jack Ranucci ’22 announced last Tuesday night during the Judiciary’s preliminary verdict. This includes attending E-Board meetings if the vice president cannot attend, Ranucci said.
Tatuskar is constitutionally authorized to appoint members to the E-Board, but since the executive senator is elected solely by members of the Senate, the Judiciary said it is understood that the appointment of the executive senator would come at the discretion of both Tatuskar and the Senate. The decision not to appoint Rong to the E-Board, however, was only Tatuskar’s. “In this regard, President Tatsukar [sic] overstepped her executive authority by acting against the Vice President and the Senate’s decision to elect Exec Senator Rong to carry out his duty as the liaison between the Senate and the Executive Office,” the Judiciary wrote.
Moreover, the Judiciary ruled that Tatuskar violated Article XI, Section 1 (i) of the Bylaws, which stipulates that “members shall make every effort to communicate across branches,” because she “failed to make every effort to communicate across branches in her attempt to bar Exec Senator Rong from the Executive Board meeting when the Vice President was unable to make it,” according to the judicial opinion.
Because there was no Senate representative at the Sept. 8 E-Board meeting and no meetings took place on Sept. 15, 22 and 29, there was no formal communication between the Senate and E-Board for a full month. The Judiciary marked this as concerning for the vice president’s ability to serve as a liaison between the two branches.
Tatuskar and Rong had previously scheduled a meeting for Oct. 10 to discuss the role of the executive senator, but Caballero and Busé filed the complaint before that meeting could occur, even though Caballero knew the meeting was going to take place. “It was explicitly stated to the vice president on Oct. 4 [that] I would be having a meeting with the executive senator to discuss the parameters of [the executive senator’s] job, with the Judicial hearing being filed on Oct. 7 before that conversation had a chance to happen,” Tatuskar told the Justice last Tuesday before the announcement of the verdict. She said that if that conversation had actually occurred, the hearing would never have happened.
Rong claimed on Monday that he never had the chance to speak with Tatuskar about his role as executive senator and the issues brought up by Caballero before Caballero actually filed the complaint. He said that he wished the conversation could have occurred before the Judiciary became involved.
“I wanted to understand what her reasoning was behind not having me on the Executive Board, and bring my own viewpoint to her and ensure that we both understood each other’s points and ensured that we had had that communication in advance of the Judiciary,” Rong told the Justice after Monday’s Senate meeting.
He also said that the executive senator could be beneficial for increased communication between the Senate and E-Board and said that “there should be Senate representation on Executive Board.” He repeated that statement when asked to clarify if he meant the Executive Senator should attend all E-Board meetings or only those at the direction of the Vice President.
The decision to exclude Rong from the Sept. 8 E-Board meeting panned out in a tense text message exchange between Tatuskar and Caballero on the day of the meeting that was introduced into evidence at the hearing. When Caballero told Tatuskar he could not attend and that Rong would be taking his place, she replied, “Hey if you can’t come that’s fine, just take the notes from [Union secretary] Taylor [Fu ’21] — but you can’t send Jake in your place [because] he doesn’t sit on eboard and can’t be privy to information,” per evidence submitted by the petitioners. Caballero then cited Article II, Section 4 (3) of the Union Constitution to vouch for Rong’s constitutional right to attend the meeting in his stead. “Don’t try to even constitution me lol,” Tatuskar responded.
Continuing the text message argument over that section of the Constitution, Tatuskar told Caballero that Rong’s ability to step in for him is limited to Caballero’s Senate-related duties because Rong’s duties are “outlined precisely within the realm of the senate, and the duties carried forth are senate specific.” She wrote, “Guille, he cannot sit in on executive board. That is a matter of precedent and not constitutionally allowed, and remains up to my discretion which is concretely that executive senator does not sit on executive board. This is not up for debate.”
The executive senator has historically been a member of the E-Board. However, the 2016 Constitutional Review Committee repealed the requirement that the executive senator sit on the E-Board with the understanding that the president, vice president and Senate would reevaluate the role of the executive senator each semester. Since the 2016 repeal, the president has followed precedent by appointing the executive senator to the E-Board, and this semester is the first in Union history without one.
Yet Tatuskar remained emphatic during the text message argument, insisting that “this is my executive board” and telling Caballero that the dynamics and operation of the E-Board were solely at her discretion.
“You do not make the decisions in what happens in that space [E-Board] the same way I would not make decisions in how you choose to conduct Senate meetings. Have respect for my job and my role the same way I have respect for yours,” she continued.
The Judiciary also ruled that Tatuskar violated Article XI, Section 1 (c) of the Bylaws, which says Union members “shall never knowingly misrepresent the truth in their capacity as a representative of the Union,” because of language she used in a conversation with Caballero about relaying the message to Rong that he would not be a part of the E-Board. During this conversation, Tatuskar told Caballero to speak with Rong about the issue because “[Rong is] intended to be someone to help you out on Senate and who you need to have a strong and good relationship with.”
While the decision not to appoint Rong was ultimately Tatuskar’s, Caballero relaying the message to Rong would allow Caballero to “[take] credit for it as a tactical move to ensure that later on down the line where you make a decision that he might not agree with, he’ll understand that you have final say rather than arguing and fighting you on it,” Tatuskar wrote, per texts submitted as evidence by the petitioners. Although the complaint did not mention this part of the Bylaws, the Judiciary decided to charge Tatuskar because it saw this exchange as a “misrepresentation of the truth” — Tatuskar was asking Caballero to take credit for a decision that was not his.
During the hearing, the defense revealed that before making the decision not to include Rong on the E-Board, Tatuskar did not consult with any current E-Board members. Instead, she reached out to former Class of 2019 Senator Kent Dinlenc, former Union President Hannah Brown ’19 and former Union Vice President Aaron Finkel ’19, all of whom were previously executive senators who served on E-Board during their terms, with questions about the role of the executive senator on the E-Board. All three replied that having the executive senator appointed to the E-Board was unnecessary.
However, Dinlenc has often changed his opinion on the role of the executive senator and has made several contradictory statements on the matter. He voted against the appointment of the executive senator to E-Board in fall 2018, but when he took up the position in the spring, he published State of the Union opinion pieces in favor of the executive senator serving on the E-board for communication purposes — a fact the petitioners used in their evidence. In more recent conversations with Tatuskar and in an Oct. 14 email to the Justice, Dinlenc called the position redundant.
After making the decision not to appoint Rong to the E-Board, Tatuskar again broached the subject during an informational meeting for new E-Board members, where she asked attendees their thoughts on her decision. “All of them unanimously agreed with me and said this makes a lot of sense,” Tatuskar recalled during the hearing. However, Tatuskar never spoke with Busé or Junior Representative to the Board of Trustees Zoë Fort ’21 — the only two members of the current E-Board with previous E-Board experience besides Tatuskar — about her decision.
The Judiciary did not spare Caballero in its ruling, finding him in violation of Article XI, Section 1 (b) and (i) of the Bylaws. Under Section 1 (b), the Judiciary ruled that Caballero did not make “every reasonable attempt to perform their assigned duties” because of multiple absences from important Union events and meetings that undermined his ability to serve as a liaison and to “uphold the relationship between the Senate and Executive Board,” per the opinion.
The Judiciary also ruled that under Section 1 (i), Caballero did not make “every effort to communicate across branches” during his conversations with Tatuskar about his disagreement with her decision not to allow Rong to attend the Sept. 8 E-Board meeting. Although Caballero initially disagreed with Tatuskar in these texts, he seemed to later change his mind and understand her reasoning. Because of Caballero’s change of heart, the Judiciary ruled that “it is reasonable to assume that President Tatuskar felt that this issue was not effectively communicated to her.”
Union Chief of Staff Zachary Wilkes ’20, who served as Tatuskar’s advocate in the hearing, questioned the rationale behind the hearing. “If the argument is that the president is not communicating effectively with the Senate, that does not fall upon the president. That is a vice presidential duty,” he said last Tuesday.
When finding Caballero guilty of poor communication, the Judiciary also noted the breakdown in communications between Caballero and Tatuskar on choosing co-chairs of Senate committees. The two had a conversation in Spring 2019 about “allowing particular Directors on Executive Board to interact with and assist the corresponding Senate committee that related to their role,” per evidence submitted by the defense.
When discussing the appointment of Senate committee co-chairs, Caballero wrote in a text message to Tatuskar, “I will just appoint all the people you tell me aka the people you choose,” but he later decided to allow Senate committee chairs to appoint their co-chairs, without telling Tatuskar of this change. Tatuskar learned of Caballero’s decision through an email exchange between Caballero and Union Diversity and Inclusion Officer Nakul Srinivas ’21 about Srinivas’ appointment as co-chair of the Social Justice and Diversity Committee. She then allegedly had to message E-Board members to speak with their potential Senate co-chairs about their appointments.
“Vice President [Caballero’s] reputation of lacking communication with fellow Student Union members presents as a harm to the image and general function of the Student Union,” the Judiciary concluded.
The lack of trust ties back to Tatuskar’s decision to bar Rong from E-Board meetings because she “was worried if I gave [Rong] too much authority he would overpower [Caballero] and never give him a shot to get his bearings … it’s evident that [Caballero] is not going to step up,” Tatuskar said during a text conversation with Wilkes, per evidence she submitted to the defense. The petitioners alleged during the hearing that Tatuskar has said that she is unable to “fully trust Guille to actually take [her] advice and input instead of working against [her].”
Rong and Senator-at-Large Nancy Zhai ’22 also brought up to Wilkes concerns about Caballero’s job performance and attendance at Senate committee meetings. In a series of text messages between Wilkes and Zhai that were introduced as evidence by the defense, Wilkes asked Zhai to update him “regarding [Caballero’s] presence at the [Dining] committee meeting [on Sept. 27],” to which Zhai replied that Caballero did not attend because of a non-Union related meeting.
Zhai told the Justice on Monday that her concerns were about Caballero’s accessibility to Union members and constituents and that she asked him to better publicize his office hours, which she said he did shortly after. But Zhai said she did not consent to the use of these text messages to aid in Tatuskar’s defense.
“I have zero association with any of the case whatsoever … I’m not taking any sides … The only thing that I am involved in is just to remind the VP to do his job a bit more,” she said.
Tatuskar also wrote in texts to Brown — which Tatuskar submitted in her evidence — that she did not trust Caballero to properly manage the Senate, a sentiment she allegedly echoed in several conversations with Union members, according to discussion at the hearing. During that same text conversation with Brown, Tatuskar called the Senate a “madhouse,” to which Brown suggested that Tatuskar utilize Rong in facilitating closer management of the Senate because Rong is “the perfect amount of annoying.”
Tatuskar’s language in these conversations led the Judiciary to conclude that she again violated Article XI, Section 1 (b), as well as (c), (d) and (i), in not making “every reasonable attempt to perform their assigned duties, and act sincerely, with a sincere intention to deal fairly with others at all times.” The Judiciary wrote, “President Tatsukar’s [sic] inability to trust her Vice President poses as a serious issue. The fact that she is unable to communicate this to her Vice President, but merely complains about him behind his back, is an unfair and unjust way to work with her constituents.” The Judiciary also said that by “speaking on behalf of both Exec Senator Rong and Vice President [Caballero’s] abilities to perform their duties as well as to their relationship with regard to their function within the Student Union,” Tatuskar “acted unfairly” toward Caballero and Rong in barring Rong from E-Board meetings.
The hearing also dealt with instances of unprofessionality in Tatuskar’s conduct in conversations with Union members, noting her usage of the phrase “enormous fuckup” to describe the low turnout at the Union’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion training in a Slack conversation. Tatuskar allegedly used the same language during the Oct. 6 E-Board meeting to describe the University’s mistakes as “extensive fuckups,” though Busé and the Judiciary acknowledged that the phrasing in this instance could be the result of Fu’s paraphrasing in the E-Board minutes.
The Judiciary found Tatuskar’s coarse language to be in violation of Article XI, Section 1 (d) of the Bylaws, which stipulates that “members shall conduct themselves in a professional manner when interacting as a representative of the Student Union and/or Brandeis University,” because she is “shown to present an unprofessional demeanor in the way she communicates to other Student Union officials, as well as representing Brandeis University.”
Calling the language “concerning,” the Judiciary wrote that Tatuskar “presents as a harm to the Student Union and its reputation at Brandeis University if she [is] unable to address ongoing issues with members of her Executive Board in a professional manner.”
The Judiciary also ruled that Tatuskar “infringed” upon the role of the Judiciary and overstepped her bounds of executive authority under Article IV, Section 2 (1) of the Constitution by superseding the Judiciary’s authority over judicial review when she interpreted the Constitution to block Rong’s attendance at E-Board meetings.
While the Judiciary concluded that Tatuskar was “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” its opinion did not specify any recommendations for further actions against Tatuskar. The opinion said that failure to uphold the Code of Conduct under Article XI, Section 2 of the Bylaws is punishable by one of the following: revocation of Student Union/Romper Room access; referral to the Dean of Students’ office; impeachment by the Senate; and sanctions, which could include censure, temporary removal from meetings and expulsion from a specific office.
At Monday’s Senate meeting, Rules Committee Chair Scott Halper ’20 introduced a resolution on behalf of the Senate condemning Tatuskar’s actions and calling upon Tatuskar to issue a public apology to the parties involved in the case — Caballero, Rong, Finkel, Brown and Zhai, as well as the entirety of the Union Judiciary and Senate.
The resolution also recommended that Tatuskar allow the Executive Senator to attend E-Board meetings at the discretion of the vice president or Senate under Article IV, Section 3 of the Bylaws, and asked that Tatuskar do so “in order to enable the Student Union to move past this regrettable incident and fully advocate for the needs, interests and concerns of the Brandeis University student body.” The Senate will discuss and vote on the resolution during next week’s Senate meeting, and the resolution will need a two-thirds vote to be enforced.
As of press time, Tatuskar did not respond to a request for comment on whether or not she would issue an apology if the resolution passed.
Tatuskar told the Justice after last Tuesday’s hearing, almost a week before the Senate resolution was introduced, that the evidence “very clearly shows a lack of communication and a lack of desirable communication.” She continued, “Quite frankly, I’m going to take a very large step back and draft out a message to … the entire student body clarifying what happened, what the decision was about and focus infinitely more on strengthening all the lines of communication.”
—Editor’s Note: Nancy Zhai and Trevor Filseth are Union senators and Justice staff writers.