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Debate, Argument and the Rule of Law

Last night I watched the presidential debate. This morning I watched the Texas Supreme Court oral argument in State of Texas v. Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins, in which the Texas Attorney General is seeking to enjoin the Harris County Clerk from mailing out applications to vote by mail to all voters in Harris County.

Webster’s defines argument as “a coherent series of reasons, statements, or facts intended to support or establish a point of view; a form of rhetorical expression intended to convince or persuade.”

Webster’s defines debate as “a regulated discussion of a proposition between two matched sides; a contention by words or arguments.”

Comparing in my mind the differences between the oral argument and the presidential debate, I was struck by the contrast. The presidential debate suffered from a lack of structure and regulation. The oral argument was exquisitely structured and regulated–twenty minutes to each side, respectful questions from the court, very skilled and knowledgeable counsel on both sides.

In many ways the Harris County Clerk case is as politically contentious as was the debate–though perhaps with less weighty consequences for the winners and losers. Attorney General Ken Paxton sued the Harris County Clerk because Mr. Hollins intends to mail applications for voting by mail to more than a million potential voters in Harris County. He previously sent such applications to voters over 65 in the June primary election, with no objections from AG Paxton. But Paxton (through the Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins) contends that Texas election laws do not authorize the county clerk to mail out applications to vote by mail, and that doing so would confuse voters because only persons over 65 or suffering from a disability are eligible to vote by mail in Texas. Mr. Harris was ably represented by Susan Hays in the oral argument. She contended that Mr. Harris has ample authority to mail such applications and that doing so would greatly increase voter participation in Harris County. Of course there is political motivation behind General Paxton’s efforts; he knows that Harris County is heavily democratic and he has no interest in increasing voter participation in Harris County.

We say that our country is governed by the Rule of Law. Webster’s says a country governed by the Rule of Law is a country “in which the laws are obeyed by everyone.” Of course that’s not the case in our country; that’s why we need police and the courts. But it is the ideal of the Rule of Law that counts. says the “Rule of Law is a principle under which all persons, institutions, and entities are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced, independently adjudicated, and consistent with international human rights principles.”

We believe that it is better to resolve our disputes by following the law than by duels or wars. No person is above the law. As lawyers, we swear to uphold the Constitution and laws of the land. Part of the ideal of the Rule of Law is that differences are resolved by argument, debate, and decisions by legislatures and courts, that most people, most of the time, accept and obey. When we lose sight of that ideal, the result is the chaos that revealed itself last night in the presidential debate.


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