Every so often, news reports emerge of court cases that hinge upon the meaning of a word, or a spelling error, or even the correct placement of punctuation. Legal documents and statutes often have such complicated conditions or phrases that such exact precision is demanded. One famous Texas case actually determined the entire outcome of an election, all hinging on the meaning of a simple semicolon.
The Semicolon Case, as it has become called, erupted because of a passage in the state’s 1869 constitution. The passage regarding elections simply read that state elections would be held “at the county seats of the several counties until otherwise provided by law; and the polls shall be opened for four days.” Little thought was given to the details. In March 1873, the state legislature passed a law allowing the elections to be held outside the county seat. However, elections were limited to only one day.
The 1873 election became a bitter showdown between the incumbent, Republican Gov. Edmund J. Davis and Democrat Richard Coke. Davis had moved to Texas as a young man in the 1840s and became an attorney and later served as a general in the Union Army during the Civil War. He became governor in 1870 and became increasingly unpopular. Coke, also an attorney, was a Virginia native who eventually settled in Waco. He volunteered for the Confederate army during the Civil War and became a judge after the war ended, eventually rising to the state Supreme Court. In the December 2 contest, Coke won with more than 67 percent of the vote.
Both sides charged irregularities against the other; attorneys gathered. The first case appeared before the state Supreme Court just a few days later. A man known only as Rodriguez had been charged in Harris County with attempting to vote twice. His lawyers, however, said his arrest was illegal because the election itself was illegal. Rodriguez was allegedly imprisoned in Houston, but Democrats believed he had been hired by the defeated sheriff of Harris County, a Republican, to invalidate the entire election on a technicality. The Harris County district attorney, representing the State of Texas at the Supreme Court in Austin, argued that the case should be dismissed as the whole affair was a political question and not a legal one.
The three-judge court, appointed by Davis, disagreed and ordered the case to continue. The Semicolon Case came down to, as so many legal arguments do, understanding the meaning of the fine print.
The semicolon is typically used in sentences to connect two independent clauses that are not connected with a conjunction or to replace commas when writing lists that contain additional commas. The precise rules regarding usage have shifted since the semicolon began appearing regularly in English-language writing in the sixteenth century.
Rodriguez’s lawyers argued that the election was illegal because when the legislature changed the election law nine months earlier, it only had the power to change the locations of polling places and not the number of days of voting. The semicolon, lawyers argued, made the clause on the four-day voting period separate from the rest of the sentence and meant that the legislature did not have the power to change the numbers of voting days without changing the constitution itself.
The Texas Supreme Court thus ruled that the entire election was illegal. Though the case was perhaps grammatically correct, the decision was political dynamite. Rodriguez was free to go; Texas politics exploded in the aftermath.
Days of protests met the court’s decision. Thousands gathered at the State Capitol in Austin while Davis barricaded himself in his office in an effort to hold power. Coke ignored the decision and proclaimed himself governor. Days later, Davis resigned.
The Constitution of 1876 replaced the 1869 document. It has served the state ever since, regardless of semicolons. Forever afterward, the court serving under the 1869 constitution would be derisively referred to as “The Semicolon Court.”
In the end, the mighty semicolon prevailed. Aside from the political carnage it caused, the case stands as a critical reminder of the importance of proper punctuation and precision with writing. Even when a teacher may no longer be around to grade any particular writer on matters of punctuation, someone is still watching.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at email@example.com.