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Justice Lehrmann says restoring society’s confidence in legal system is vital at UHLC’s Sondock ethics lecture

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Supreme Court of Texas Senior Justice Debra H. Lehrmann

May 08, 2024 – Debra H. Lehrmann, Supreme Court of Texas Senior Justice, advocated for a shift within the judiciary to improve the public’s faith in law and democracy during a lecture at the University of Houston Law Center.

“We’re all different people, different cultures, yet we all coalesce around solving problems with the rule of law,” said Lehrmann the Supreme Court of Texas’ longest-serving woman justice.

Lehrmann is the latest speaker in the Justice Ruby Kless Sondock Jurist-In-Residence Lectureship in Legal Ethics. In her presentation, “Maintaining Professional Civility in an Age of Divisiveness,” Lehrmann recognized that the reason democracy works is because people believe in its essential institutions and purpose.

That faith in the rule of law, however, is declining explained Lehrmann. A survey from the Pew Research Center conducted in 2023 concluded that when asked to describe politics in the United States in a single word or phrase, 79% of Americans expressed a negative sentiment and just 2% offered a positive word. Those words were “divisive, messy, corrupt, polarized, and just downright bad.”

To overcome this divisiveness Lehrmann believes that upholding the rule of law equally and uniformly is key “so that all segments of society feel protected.” Lehrmann says the best way for the judicial system to do this is by not relying solely on textualism as a form of judicial interpretation.

Supreme Court of Texas Senior Justice Debra H. Lehrmann, UHLC Dean Leonard M. Baynes and Justice Ruby Kless Sondock

Textualism is the idea that there is an objective meaning to the text without regard to the intent of the drafters, adopters, or ratifiers of the Constitution and its amendments when deriving meaning from the text. “Methods of interpretation are at the core of what we do as judges,” said Justice Lehrmann. “We should never rely on any form of interpretation that increases the likelihood that this rule is not going to be applied fairly across the board and textualism, I believe, presents some real problems in this regard.”

For example, when Lehrmann and her fellow justices on the Supreme Court of Texas were examining a case several years ago, Miles v. Texas Central Railroad, the issue was whether a statute written in 1709 dealing with eminent domain applies to the monitored technology of high-speed electric trains.

“We held that it does, now mind you, no such trains existed at the time this text was written, so what should be considered?” Lehrmann said they interpreted statutes to embrace later developed technology when the text allows. “Textualism would have had us pretend that trains are still confined to single car trolleys, it pretends that things are simpler than they are and gives no real guidance at that time about things that could have never been imagined when a text was written.”

To change things for the better, Justice Lehrmann wants the judicial system to recognize their biases and perspectives so their views on societal issues are not likely to impact their ruling in a case. Looking beyond the text, Lehrmann says, is important because “life is too full of ambiguity and change for static readings of statutes to make any sense, it's too limiting and too rigid.”

Ultimately, Lehrmann asks the third branch of the government to live up to the words of former Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, “that we all live greatly in the law thereby increasing respect for it, and just maybe saving our democracy in the process.”

The Sondock Jurist-In-Residence program was named in honor of UHLC alumna Justice Ruby Kless Sondock (’62), who was appointed to the Supreme Court of Texas in 1982, becoming the first woman to serve in a regular session of the court. Since its inception in 2016, the program has hosted a number of renowned justices.

Click here to view the Lehrmann lecture and other CLE On Demand programs.

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