LBJ V. Coke Stevenson: Lawyering for Control of the Disputed Texas Democratic Party Senatorial Primary Election of 1948

Article excerpt

I. HISTORICAL LAWYERING AS A NEW VIEWPOINT ON LBJ V. STEVENSON .................................................................................. 2

A. Historical Lawyering ........................................................... 2

B. The Incomplete Accounts of Caro and Other Biographers.. 6

C. Johnson 's Eighty-Seven- Vote Margin of Victory ................ 9

II. THE THREE WEEKS OF LITIGATION ........................................... 17

A. Johnson 's Lawyers File Suit in the State Court System and Gain Initial Control .................................................... 17

1. Friday, September 10 ......................................... 17

2. Monday, September 13, 10:00 A.M. to 3:00 P.M ...... 21

3. September 13, 7:00 P.M. to Midnight ....................... 23

B. Stevenson 's Lawyers Move the Post-Election Dispute to the Federal Court System and Acquire Control ................ 24

1 . Tuesday and Wednesday, September 1 4 and 15 ........ 24

2. Thursday, September 16 ...................................... 43

3 . Tuesday and Wednesday, September 2 1 and 22 ........ 44

4. Friday, September 24 ......................................... 50

C. LBJ' s Lawyers Reacquire Control with a Supreme Court Justice's Stay ..................................................................... 53

1 . Monday and Tuesday, September 27 and 28 ............. 53

2. October 2 to January 3 1 ...................................... 61

III. LBJ V. STEVENSON AND LAWYERING FOR CONTROL OF THE OUTCOME OF DISPUTED ELECTIONS .......................................... 65

I. HISTORICAL LAWYERING AS A NEW VIEWPOINT ON LBJ V. STEVENSON

A. Historical Lawyering

This Article explores the history, from the lawyers' perspectives, of a high-profile litigation sixty years ago, the whirlwind of state and federal litigation that attended the 1948 runoff election battle between Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson and former Texas governor Coke Stevenson for the Texas Democratic Party nomination for United States Senator. Johnson famously won this election by eighty-seven votes out of almost one million cast ("Landslide Lyndon," he immediately called himself), based on very tardy vote tallies reported from Precinct 13 in politically corrupt Jim Wells County in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. This result was ultimately sustained by an "unusual stay" issued by a United States Supreme Court Justice in favor of Johnson - in an unnumbered proceeding styled Lyndon B. Johnson v. Coke Stevenson1 - at the end of three weeks of litigation between the two candidates. The litigation is interesting as a key moment in Johnson's rise to power and perhaps even as a precursor to Bush v. Gore.2 However, after working through the biographers' accounts of the episode, I surmised that a legal historian or a lawyer might be able to obtain from a thorough study of the legal papers and the court proceedings, and from seeking to understand the work of the candidates' lawyers, new, or perhaps more nuanced, understandings about the junction of politics and law that occurs when very close election tallies are challenged and the dispute is presented to courts for resolution.

Indeed, as I examined the biographers' footnotes, I came to the conclusion that the biographers failed to understand or to fully appreciate some very interesting primary sources, namely the records of the multiple courts in which the Stevenson-Johnson legal battles were waged. Such records and related materials are well familiar to lawyers and legal historians and are generally open and accessible, if not in clerks' offices in courthouses, then in archives. These sources include attorneys' pleadings, motions, briefs, court orders, hearing transcripts, docket sheets, other clerk and court records,3 and, in the instance of significant trials or notable figures such as Johnson, oral history interviews of participating attorneys. …