Adapting Standards of Judicial Impartiality to Student Discipline in Higher Education: Pitfalls and Potential Learned from Title IX Adjudications

Volume 98

Brennan Murphy

Ongoing faith in judicial decision-making is predicated on the fairness of judicial institutions. After all, “[a] fair trial in a fair tribunal is a basic requirement of due process.” Any legal system that respects the rule of law must ensure impartiality in the adjudication of disputes—not just in the courts, but in all forms of adjudication. Therefore, adjudications of student discipline cases in higher education (at least at public institutions) must abide by the judicial ethic of impartiality as a matter of due process.Students in similar situations must be treated equally to avoid injustice, without regard to adjudicators’ biases or conflicts of interest, because school disciplinary systems will not work if they seem unjust to students.

But is the impartiality required in university discipline cases equivalent to the standards of impartiality set forth for judges adjudicating in courtrooms? This Note argues that impartiality in student discipline should distinguish itself in part from judicial impartiality, keeping the broad strokes (a requirement of impartial decision-making and a mechanism to enforce it) but adapting them to the educational context. In Part I, an overview of impartiality as applied to formal judges denotes how partial judges can be removed from decision-making in cases where conflicts of interest or biases actually interfere—or appear to interfere—with judicial judgment. Part II then describes the educational environment of student discipline at institutions of higher education, including the concerns for impartiality unique to school discipline. Part III offers a deep look into Title IX hearings adjudicating and addressing student-to-student sexual misconduct. The administrative regulations around impartiality in Title IX decision-making—their vacillation between specificity and silence—provide insights into areas of improvement for impartiality in university student discipline at large. From these insights, this Note articulates several recommendations for practice in Part IV.

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