VA House bill proposes public students’ right to counsel

Delegate Rick Morris of the Virginia House of Delegates proposed House Bill 1321 which would give students and student organizations the right to representation if they are charged with an offense that would be punishable by at least a ten day suspension or expulsion.

This bill would only apply to public universities in Virginia, excluding the Virginia Military Institute. It is closely related to House Bill 1323, which would allow students and organizations to challenge a university’s decision to the circuit court in the locality of the university. According to Brent Ericson, assistance dean and director of Mason’s Student Conduct, courts usually defer decisions to colleges to conduct their own interdisciplinary process.

Both bills have been tabled for now, but Ericson says that Mason students and organizations punishable by suspension or expulsions already have the right to counsel.

“The difference between our process and the proposed bill is that under our current process, attorneys cannot actively represent a student or speak on their behalf,” Ericson said.

This means that the student would be required to speak for him or herself. However, the student can refuse to answer questions at their own discretion.

House Bill 1321 is accompanied by a bit of controversy because of its fiscal implications. It gives the alleged offenders the right to counsel, but only if they provide it.

“Nothing in this section shall be construed to create a right for students to be represented at public expense at a disciplinary proceeding or other institutional proceeding regarding the alleged offense,” reads the bill.

This could give wealthier students and organizations an advantage over those who cannot afford legal advocates. In the U.S. legal system, the 6th amendment in the Constitution grants defendants the right to counsel if they cannot afford it in criminal cases. Cases presented to the university’s Office of Student Conduct are not criminal cases.

Although the university and government would not provide legal counsel to students and organizations who cannot afford it, there are still ways to obtain advocates.

“If a student needs an advisor in our current system, we can make suggestions or recommendations for the other members of the Mason community to assist them,” Ericon said. “We would not provide financial resources, however.”

Currently, Mason executes the majority of proposed legislation in House Bills 1321 and 1323. The exception to House Bill 1321 is that Mason does not allow legal advocates to speak on behalf of a student or organizations.

The Student Senate has not passed a resolution for or against House Bill 1321. According to Student Body Vice President Dilan Wickrema, implementations from House Bill 1321 have not been brought forth to the Student Senate by constituents or Student Senators.

“If passed into law, I honestly do not see the bill affecting the majority of recognized student organizations. In my time at Mason there have been very few instances involving student organizations that I could see falling under the category that House Bill 1323 would cover,” Wickrema said.

Featured photo credit: Amy Podraza