By: Daniel Melool  | 

YU’s Langfan Oratory Competition Blurs the Line Between Law and Politics — That’s Dangerous

YU has announced the return of the Langfan Family Constitutional Oratory Competition, an annual oratory competition that allows undergraduate students to present a “short uninterrupted speech on a constitutional topic.” Taking part in this competition allows aspiring attorneys to practice and hone some of the skills they will need when they practice law. However, over the past few years, the competition has strayed from its intended purpose of being a place to analyze complex constitutional questions. Instead, the questions presented have become more political, and this year’s topic — stand-your-ground laws — is no exception. 

On its face, this appears to be an innocuous shift in the competition’s focus. But the Langfan Oratory Competition’s jump from legal to political represents a growing trend of the line between the two being blurred: What’s legal is seen as what’s political, and what’s political is seen as what’s legal. Any past distinction between the two is naught, and the competition’s change in questions shows this.

Let me be clear about what I mean when I say that the questions are more political than legal. A political question is a question that the courts cannot adjudicate, for the nature of the question is outside the law. If I am a smoker and I do not like my city’s no-smoking ordinance, I can petition the city to remove it. But if I go to a court to ask that the ordinance be struck down, the court will laugh at me and not take the case because smoking laws are a political question. They are neither required nor prohibited by law from being enacted.    

A legal issue is quite different. For an issue to be considered legal, it must be governed by federal, state or constitutional law, thus being within the jurisdiction of the courts. For example, A steals money from B; B then files a lawsuit against A for damages; of course, the court rules in favor of B because embezzlement is a crime. Now, this laughably obvious example might seem too simplistic, so let us discuss a more complex one. In District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court held that the Second Amendment right to “keep and bear arms” protects an individual right to own guns instead of just the possession of firearms in connection with militia service. However, the Court also noted that the right to own firearms “is not unlimited.” Well, where is the limit? Does the Second Amendment include the right to own a rocket launcher? This is a legal question that the courts will have to resolve in drawing the line where the right to bear arms ends. 

The phrasing of this year’s question — “Should stand-your-ground laws be allowed in the United States?” — clearly indicates a political question. Legal questions never ponder whether a proposition ought to happen. They only ask if the proposition is allowed to happen. What the law ought to be is resolved by the political process, not the courts. Ironically, the details for the event state that this oratory is “not an invitation for an airing of political views.” This sentence is laughable. What answers should one expect from this question other than political views? On a topic as controversial as stand-your-ground laws, one can rest assured that the contestants will display their deepest political convictions. 

If the Langfan competition was a policy forum, such a question would be an excellent one to dissect. But, according to the competition’s description, the oratory is supposed to be about a “constitutional topic.” The current topic is not a legal question, and, therefore, a fortiori not a constitutional topic. Indeed, stand-your-ground laws have nothing to do with the constitution as the issue is dealt with on the state level. 

Respect for the rule of law is essential for a functioning society. We must be able to distinguish between which issues belong in the political process and which in the legal process. Ignoring any distinctions between the two leads to less confidence in our judiciary to properly adjudicate cases and less trust that our government officials are acting in the best interest of our country.  

Policy discussions and legal arguments are very different. Although both require public speaking skills, the former are more subjective and allow people to argue what the law ought to be. Typically, the positions put forth are based on a person’s underlying values. Such values determine what a person considers to be the best policy. Matters of law require one to assess an issue based on certain axioms regardless of their desirability. Legal arguments also require knowledge of certain canons that guide how to evaluate the given scenario. In essence, legal questions require one to argue within a given framework, while policy discussions are much more open-ended.

Now, if this was the first time the competition asked a political question, that would be less concerning. However, this has been a trend over the past few times the competition was held. In 2020, the question was: “Should President Trump be impeached?” Like this year’s question, impeachment is entirely a political question. The process is carried out by Congress, a political branch of our government. Additionally, there is no place for the courts in the impeachment process, as a unanimous Supreme Court declared the matter outside the realm of the judiciary in Nixon v. United States. Once again, the question of President Trump’s impeachment is an important one for the political process, but it has no place being asked in a constitutional oratory.

In 2018, the question concerned gerrymandering and if the judiciary should “Review the Constitutionality of Gerrymandering Schemes Adopted on Allegedly Political Grounds[.]” As I mentioned earlier, legal questions do not ask what ought to be, they only ask what is allowed to be. While gerrymandering is a real problem that weakens citizens’ ability to have a meaningful voice in Congress, the issue has long been recognized as a political issue. To be fair, there is an exception to this rule: race. The Supreme Court has held that gerrymandering conducted on racial lines is unconstitutional. However, race is not the concern in the question posed – partisanship is. To that extent, gerrymandering is a political question, which, even if one believes the courts ought to get involved, is to be resolved in the political process. 

When one becomes so vested in a particular cause, they can forget the proper place and manner in which that cause should be pursued. Blurring the lines between what is legal and what is political is a perfect example of distorting the proper route to affect change. Such a distortion is not only improper — it is dangerous. If people are made to believe that their best efforts for change lay in one channel when they should focus their ire elsewhere, the society we live in will break down. After all, they will find no success, for their petitions are misguided, and if the system is irreparable — as they are made to believe —then it must be torn down to oblivion.

Though the Langfan competition was once an opportunity to test legal knowledge and advance oral argument skills, it has now devolved into a place for mere policy discussions. Of course, there is nothing wrong with a policy discussion, but it is no substitute for a legal forum. Students who are pursuing law are being deprived of an opportunity to partake in a constitutional forum that will prepare them for their legal careers. That being said, if you are interested in partaking in this oratory in hopes of winning the cash prize, by all means, enter the competition. But also be honest enough to understand the importance of distinguishing a legal question from a political question. Your university has failed to do so.