"A Slobbering Lame Thing"? The Semicolon
LANCE A. COOPER*
C ONSTITUTIONAL INTERPRETATION DOES NOT ALWAYS INVOLVE
sweeping enunciations of grand principles. On occasion, some-
thing as seemingly innocuous as a punctuation mark demands a court's
explanation. In 1873, the Texas Supreme Court's opinion about the
grammatical meaning of a semicolon almost sparked armed conflict
between the state's Democrats and Republicans. The semicolon upon
which the court decision hinged gave the decision, Ex Parte Rodriguez,
its common name and gave the court that decided it the derisive name,
The immediate cause of the dispute was the December 2, 1873, elec-
tion of Democrat Richard Coke as governor. Coke won overwhelmingly,
polling 100,415 votes to incumbent Republican Governor Edmund J.
Davis's 52,141 votes.2 Democrats across the state cheered the end of
Reconstruction and Republican rule. Celebration ceased, however, on
January 6, 1874, when the Texas Supreme Court handed down the
Rodriguez decision, which voided the December election on the grounds
that an election law passed on March 31, 1873, violated the Texas
Constitution of 1869. Democrats condemned the court's ruling as an
act of desperation by Republicans attempting to cling to power.
According to Rodriguez's detractors, the decision was nothing more than
the legally indefensible product of partisan judges who were struggling
to maintain the Republican party's power and to keep their own jobs.
In addition to the election of government officials, voters in the 1873
election had approved two amendments to the 1869 Constitution that
allowed the new governor to reorganize the supreme court. In other
* Lance A. Cooper is a Dallas attorney and a Ph.D. student at the University of North Texas. He
would like to thank Professor Randolph B. Campbell and Professor Richard G. Lowe for their
guidance and many helpful comments during the preparation of this article.
'Ex Parte Rodriguez, 39 Tex. 706 (1874).
, Carl Moneyhon, Republwanzsm in Reconstruction Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 198o), 191.
Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 101, July 1997 - April, 1998. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth117155/. Accessed August 2, 2015.