Senate Attorney General Lauren Croft described the recent amendments to the SGA Impeachment and Removal Statutes as an "overhaul."
Along with clarifying the list of actions that constitute as impeachable offenses, Senate added a new position called the interview director. This individual — chosen from a pool of members on the Student Conduct Board and not from SGA itself — is responsible for questioning witnesses of the accused and the accuser.
Croft said the position would help hinder bias and mixing of responsibilities, as well as ensure that witness interviews deal solely with fact-finding.
Previously, interviews with witnesses were hosted by the Legislative, Judicial and Rules Committee, which votes during the formal removal hearing of the individual in question. Croft said that the addition of a third party outside of Senate — the interview director — would act as a buffer.
It's not appropriate to have individuals who are voting later on the validity of the affidavit to be interfering with the witnesses directly in the first part of the impeachment process, Croft said.
The interview director questions the witnesses by choosing from a list of approved questions developed by the LJR Committee.
Croft also noted that changes were made in the chapter of the statute's language pertaining to the development of these questions, as previous wording did not provide enough guidelines for the LJR Committee.
"Additionally, although the LJR Committee is no longer involved in the witness interviews, it is still important that they create appropriate questions," Croft said. "This lessens the workload of the interview director and certifies that questions provided are relevant and are not soliciting hearsay."
Croft referenced former SGA Student Body President Melissa Westbrook, who was impeached during her 2013-14 term but not removed. The "trial-and-error" experience was used to create some of these new guidelines.
Senate added the opportunity to further review evidence and witness transcripts during the removal hearing, and the right for the accuser to cross-examine witnesses during the hearing. Previously, cross-examining was only a right offered to the accused. Along with these changes to the hearing process, Senate also removed the part of the statute that called for the LJR Committee to leave the room to discuss the hearing, then return to provide a recommendation for Senate.
"Senate as a whole should be functioning as a cohesive unit," Croft said. "The updated wording removed the [LJR] caucus altogether, and allows all members to participate in questioning during the questioning time frames."
Westbrook said that, although the changes are positive and beneficial and she is proud of SGA's progression, the biggest flaws in the changes were not completely addressed based on her knowledge of the amendments.
"The problem came from someone being able to just accuse you of something that you didn't commit, but because it is an impeachable offense to commit it — if you did — then you have to be dragged through an entire process. Nothing stops it," she said.
According to statutes, when the accuser's affidavit is recommended to Senate by the LJR Committee as having validity as an impeachable offense, Senate reviews the allegation. If Senate determines that the claims may have validity as impeachable offenses, the investigative process begins for the individual in question, who is technically considered impeached at that time.
"Society in general, when they see impeached, they see that as you're not only charged, but that you're guilty of it. And everyone's like, 'Why is she being impeached?'" Westbrook said. "It sounds like 'removed,' although it's not. ... This process is basically guilty until proven innocent to the public, and that's not fair at all."
And although some flaws could be better addressed, Westbrook said she is supportive of the addition of the interview director position.
"I'm really proud of our legislative branch this year, because although there were other flaws I would like to see addressed, I think what they're doing is great," she said.
In February 2014, Senate found no merit in the charges against Westbrook and voted that she remain in office.
Nada Hassanein is a Digital Producer for the Central Florida Future. Follow her on Twitter at @nhassanein_or email her at NadaH@CentralFloridaFuture.com.