ST. PETERSBURG — The chief justice of the Supreme Court has been losing sleep. He is stressed. He has been debating and weighing the variables with his associate justices, one of whom refers to his own hairline to drive home the point: "Receding."
The most controversial election dispute in recent history is fraught with anxiety, though it's unlikely that any of the five justices — all between the ages of 18 and 23 — are really losing their hair. This is college, after all. And the University of South Florida St. Petersburg student government is in a pickle.
The student body president won re-election in March, only to be disqualified over allegations of bribery, plagiarism, abuse of campaign funds and other alleged misdeeds.
He was running against his own vice president. What's more, the candidates' respective running mates share an apartment. And one of those roommates is the president's ex-girlfriend.
The president's disqualification was overturned. A trial was demanded. The attorney general resigned. Along the way, accusations flew over loyalty, friendship and one candidate's choice to go braless — all of it coming to a head on Friday.
To have a student government, state law says the university has to have all three branches. More complicated is how that comes to life in the microcosm of a college campus. They're learning, figuring it out. But it's still politics.
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The word "Prez" was airbrushed in loopy letters onto a T-shirt and across the chest of Mark Lombardi-Nelson on Friday. Mark, a 20-year-old junior, said hello to Greg, Kenya, Matt, Rebecca, Allie, Andrew, Mike, Dustin, Mary and Tom. "The most important thing you can do for a person is remember their name," Mark explained.
He won re-election to the presidency last month with his running mate and ex-girlfriend, sophomore Christa Hegedus. But hours after voting closed, he received an email. Their ticket was disqualified.
The alleged violations were serious. They included plagiarism, for posting quotes on the campaign's Facebook page without attribution; bribery, for including a coupon to the campus tavern on a flier; and campaign funding fraud, for putting stickers on school-owned banners and awnings.
But in assigning blame, the Election Rules Commission admitted it did not follow its own procedures. Where was the due process? Mark and Christa were back in the race.
The opposing ticket balked. Sophomores Jimmy Richards and Jordan Iuliucci said the violations occurred regardless. They requested a trial. The attorney general resigned his post so he could represent Richards.
And so the Supreme Court convened on Friday. "Welcome to the hearing," said Chief Justice Sean Ericson, 23 and a senior. "Let it be noted that all justices are present. Today we will be deciding the matter in Request for Trial S13-002 — James Richards vs. the Election Rules Commission."
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No one was here to play. The student justices aspire to become federal justices, the student body president wants to one day be the president. But it is college.
The original ticket was Jimmy and Christa. Mark set it up, but the chemistry was lagging, so Christa decided to run for president with her best friend and roommate, Jordan.
The two were months into making plans when Jordan told Christa that a number of people — "a number I will not disclose," Jordan says — were questioning whether Christa was the best student to represent the university.
Christa says it came down to her bras, or lack thereof. She didn't want to show straps with certain dresses, and didn't think her cup size warranted otherwise. "But I promised to wear a bra more," Christa says. And Jordan promised to stand by her.
Except that the next month, Jordan left to run as Jimmy Richards' vice president.
"The amount of voices that were speaking to me — if you don't listen to your constituents, you're already negating your word," Jordan says. "If I don't listen to them, who am I?"
Things have been tense in their apartment ever since.
Mark stepped in. He had been hesitant to run with Christa before, when they were a couple. But when they broke up in the fall, he felt it would be all right.
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The Supreme Court gave Mark five minutes to speak Friday. He threw on a silk button-down shirt over his "Prez" T-shirt and rolled up the sleeves. "Those who follow the path of the righteousness," he began, "shall have the reward."
Then, he announced they would take a moment of silence. Graham Reybitz, a freshman justice wearing sandals underneath his suit pants, tapped his fingertips together. Chief Justice Ericson tipped his head to the side and blinked a few times.
After 90 minutes of deliberation, the Supreme Court handed down its decision. It cleared Mark and Christa of bribery, and a few of the counts of plagiarism. But enough violations still stood to throw them out of the election, and the school's student government remained in limbo.
Mark says he'll appeal to the administration. He'll appeal to the state. The words "Mark Lombardi-Nelson and Christina Hegedus vs. USF" have already crossed his mind.
"If I thought it was right, I'd step aside," he says. "That's just the type of leader I am."