This man shouldn't get the last word on gay marriage

  • Article by: AMY BERGQUIST
  • Updated: August 22, 2012 - 7:02 AM

A proper debate has a decorum: No last-minute argumentative ambushes.

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Frank Schubert

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Frank Schubert, the "crusader" orchestrating the campaign to amend Minnesota's Constitution to ban same-sex marriage, makes his living hoodwinking voters and making a mockery of basic rules for civil discourse. The foundation of his self-described "strategy" is to run emotional ads at the eleventh hour of an election campaign.

In the Star Tribune's profile ("Streak on line for marriage crusader," Aug. 5), Schubert acknowledges that his only "mistake" in 20 years was to run such an ad earlier than planned. As the story relates, "Opponents had time to air an equally powerful counterpunch and his side lost."

The "October surprise" is a standard political tactic, and Schubert is entitled to follow his tried-and-true playbook. But his strategy is cowardly and undermines the idea of democratic decisionmaking. If Schubert has confidence in the persuasive force of his arguments, he should make them early, allowing others time to respond, and giving voters a chance to weigh the arguments about the issues.

These considerations are particularly important when voters are asked whether we should amend the very foundation of our state government, the Minnesota Constitution. We should make such a far-reaching and enduring change only when we have been able to give ample consideration to all arguments and the responses to them, rather than when one person attempts to rush us to judgment.

Rules for argumentation and decisionmaking in many venues account for the importance of providing opportunity for responses. When I joined the debate team in high school, I learned one of the most important rules: Judges disregard arguments raised only late in the debate.

Later, as a civics teacher and debate coach, my students and I discussed the reasons for this rule. If you want to have a fair discussion, you have to give your opponent a chance to respond. And if you are confident in your arguments, make them early and be eager to hear and defend against the other side's attacks.

Courts have similar rules. When I started clerking for a judge after finishing law school, I learned that litigants can't make arguments for the first time in a reply brief, when opposing counsel has no opportunity to answer. And attorneys can't raise an issue for the first time on appeal; the trial court has to have a chance to think through the matter first.

There is a reason we have these rules: The decisions we make are not supposed to be tallied up as wins and losses for professional tacticians. Rather, we are supposed to reach a well-reasoned judgment. Any such decision requires full consideration of all the claims and evidence people have.

You might consider saving this commentary and rereading it in the days running up to the Nov. 6 election. We will be barraged with Schubert's ads claiming that if the amendment fails, schools will teach 5-year-olds that "a prince can marry a prince" and other illogical, unfounded and irrelevant assertions that show a lack of respect for the state's voters and for democratic dialogue.

Schubert's tactics have no home in Minnesota. We have a civic culture that values fair and thoughtful discourse. We should hold his arguments to the same standards used in an academic debate or a court of law. Courts interpreting our state Constitution follow these standards; voters deciding whether to amend that same document should do so, too.

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Amy Bergquist is a staff attorney at the Advocates for Human Rights.

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