In the case of Ex parte Rodriguez (39 Tex. 705 ), the Texas Supreme Court ruled invalid the state general election of December 2, 1873. The Rodriguez decision is often referred to as the Semicolon Case because of the importance of a semicolon in determining the court's ruling (see SEMICOLON COURT). Ex parte Rodriguez was greeted with hostility by Texas Democrats, who had ousted the administration of Republican governor Edmund J. Davis in the election. The court's findings produced severe criticism of that body and resulted in a tarnished reputation for the court for the entire period of Reconstruction.
Ex parte Rodriguez was one of several cases initiated by dissatisfied Republicans shortly after the December 2 election challenging its validity. Though Governor Davis refused to support these efforts, he did not restrain his supporters from pursuing this course. Because the nature of the Rodriguez case made it possible to obtain an early hearing in the Supreme Court, the case emerged as the focus of legal efforts to overturn the general election.
On December 16, 1873, presiding judge Wesley Ogden issued a writ of habeas corpus for the delivery of Joseph Rodríguez of Travis County to the court. Two prominent Republicans, former governor Andrew J. Hamilton and Chauncey B. Sabin, represented Rodríguez, who had been arrested on December 15 on a warrant issued in Harris County. The warrant charged that the defendant had voted at Houston more than once in the general election. Hamilton and Sabin appealed for the writ on the grounds that Rodríguez was being held illegally because the election itself had not been legal.
The court began its hearings on December 22. Harris County district attorney Frank M. Spencer, acting in the absence of Attorney General William Alexander, represented the state. Prominent Democratic attorneys requested and received permission to assist Spencer because of the importance of the case to their party. These attorneys included Charles S. West, Thomas E. Sneed, George F. Moore, Alexander W. Terrell, party chairman William M. Walton, and M. A. Long.
The state, influenced by its Democratic counsel, asked that the court dismiss the case. Spencer argued his point on the grounds that the case was fictitious, designed to "extort from this court" a ruling on the constitutionality of the election. Upon the testimony of a prominent Houston lawyer, George Goldthwaite, the state's attorneys asserted that the defeated Republican candidate for sheriff in Harris County, A. B. Hall, had hired Rodríguez to test the election law and was paying the expenses of Rodríguez's attorneys. Implying that the entire proceeding was political, M. A. Long threatened the court with impeachment if it involved itself in a political issue.
Hamilton and Sabin proceeded upon their contention that their client should be released despite the fact that he had voted twice because the election was unconstitutional and thus invalid. They argued that the legislative act of March 7, 1873, providing for the election conflicted with Article 3, Section 6, of the Constitution of 1869. The constitution provided that all elections "shall be held at the county-seats...until otherwise provided by law; and the polls shall be opened for four days." The legislature had established polling places at voting precincts outside the county seats and restricted the election to a single day. Rodríguez's attorneys argued that the semicolon in the constitution made the clause regarding the length of the polling period independent of the rest of the sentence, so that the legislature could not shorten an election.
The court decided against the state's petition for dismissal. Justice John D. McAdoo gave the majority opinion and noted that because Rodríguez's arrest appeared to be legal the court had no choice but to hear the facts of the case. At this point Spencer resigned, claiming that he could not prosecute a case that he believed had no basis in fact. The court replaced him with B. Trigg, Travis County district attorney. The Democratic attorneys already admitted to the proceedings were allowed to continue.
After dismissing a motion by Hamilton and Sabin to release Rodríguez, the court held a full hearing. Trigg and his associates pursued a course aimed at preventing the court from making a decision. They argued that Rodríguez had not voted twice and that there was no case for the court to decide. They contended that the court should remand the case to Harris County, where original jurisdiction resided. They argued that the court should not decide a constitutional question in a trial of a writ of habeas corpus. Finally, they argued that the court should not rule on a political question, especially one that determined the validity of the election affecting the succession in coordinate departments. Hamilton and Sabin denied all of the contentions of the state. On the political issue Hamilton argued that the requested ruling did not concern the results of the election but rather the validity of the electoral process.
The court announced a decision on January 6, 1874. The judges ruled against the state and concluded that Rodríguez should be released because the election had not been valid. The judges accepted Hamilton's arguments on the construction of relevant clauses in the constitution. The decision had no practical results, however, since it could not be enforced and Democrats chose to ignore it. Following the Coke-Davis controversy, Democratic governor Richard Coke seized office, thus achieving a practical political end to the issue raised by the case.