‘Grand Forks Herald’: North Dakota’s Lawmakers and Governor Should Approve Right to Counsel Bill

January 14, 2015

With SB 2150, North Dakota has the chance to become the second state in the country to grant students at its public colleges and universities the right to hire attorneys for suspension or expulsion hearings. The Grand Forks Herald wastes no time in driving home why the bill is necessary. In an article published today, Tom Dennis writes:

You’re a college student accused of sexual assault, and your disciplinary hearing at a North Dakota University System campus is under way.

If you say nothing, that can be used against you. But if you speak up, that can be used against you, too—especially later. For if criminal charges result from the accusation, then everything you say at the hearing will be admissible in court.

What to do?

Hire a lawyer, the Herald says. Right now, the solution isn’t so simple—even when students do hire attorneys, they’re usually forbidden from actively participating in campus hearings, significantly limiting the extent to which they can protect their clients. SB 2150 would change that, giving students an advocate in a system that frequently lacks procedural safeguards for the accused.

Dennis acknowledges the problems keeping many would-be complainants from coming forward: “dismissive investigators” and “rude questioning,” for example. He argues that making progress on these fronts is important, but so too is maintaining the rights of those accused of sexual assault:

[N]ow, Lady Justice’s scale has tipped too far; and on campus, it’s the accused who too often are being mistreated. Under pressure from Washington, campuses have set up systems that can resemble kangaroo courts, complete with investigators doubling as judges and juries, minimal standards of finding guilt, no power to cross-examine witnesses and limited ability to appeal.

These procedures raise the odds of innocent students being found guilty and then expelled. That’s an outcome that can ruin lives.

And that, in turn, is why the accused in such proceedings deserve due-process rights. These start with the rights to an attorney and to appeal, which Senate Bill 2150 provides.

FIRE is glad to see the Herald write with its support of SB 2150, and we hope to see the state’s lawmakers approve the bill.