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Author Topic: Topic Category Rotation (Domestic, Legal, International)  (Read 3564 times)
kevin kuswa
Sr. Member
Posts: 346

« on: April 29, 2013, 03:19:46 AM »

CEDA Topic Rotation Thoughts, 4/29/13

"CEDA Topic Rotation Amendment:
Within each four-year cycle the national topic should reflect a rotation of at least one of each of the following topic categories.
1) Domestic – A topic that relates to issues within the United States.
2) Legal – A topic that relates to a controversy within legal jurisprudence and where the topic wording emphasizes legal research.
3) International – A topic of primarily international relations or policy."

There is not a lot to go on with this amendment, and that may be for the best.  In light of the fact that the topic ballot just released is the first one that includes an explicit designation of the category that the controversy falls under (at least initially), it makes sense to offer some additional thoughts on the process.  It is not that simple because there are instances in which the designation may be different than the one suggested by the authors of the controversy and there may be instances when the designation includes more than one area because the controversy could take shape as different wordings in distinct areas.  Members of the topic committee have been careful thinking through the various categories and articulating justifications for each, but it would not hurt to have a broader conversation—or at least a thread where some arguments can be traced—it order to think through the main differences between domestic, legal, and international topics.  

The main question is what each topic category means and how that designation is determined.  The thoughts in this post do not represent the topic committee as a whole, they are just individual musings designed to assist or at least supplement the topic wording designation process.  It seems to me that the category designation process can be slippery business and relies on a lot of variables, including the attempt to predict where the majority of debates will focus as a result of the wording of the resolution. In other words, these three categories may not be the best way to divide up various wordings, but this is the scheme that is in place and that governs the current topic rotation.

The other point put well on the controversy ballot is that it is the topic wording that determines the topic category, not the controversy.  Certain controversies may produce wordings that are all under the same category, while other controversies may produce wordings under more than one category.  Ultimately, though, a single wording will fall under only one category.  It does not make sense to consider a topic wording under more than one category given the way the rotation is written.  The most uncertainty thus far has surrounded the “legal” category, but all three categories could use further clarification and delineation.  This should be a collective process and thoughts on ways to interpret differences between the three categories are more than welcome.  

A portion of the method for putting topic wordings into various categories comes from following the classifications of earlier topics, but topic rotation has been informal in the past and has involved some wordings that certainly straddled the fence.  Title VII could make a claim for domestic or legal, Commander in Chief could make a claim for international or legal, some of the big list topics like Europe had wings in multiple categories like DNA harmony under legal and security aid under international, and it is ethically wrong to classify Indian Country as “domestic,” but it probably was.  There have been international topics like Pacific Rim Trade Policy and the Horn of Africa that were dominated by domestic issues such as politics and agent counterplans, and there have been domestic topics like Agricultural Subsidies and Energy Consumption that featured international debates about global trade, global warming, and bilateral relations.  Many of the legal topics, including Criminal Procedure, Privacy, and the 4-case Overrule gravitated toward domestic and international policy. We all know that these categories blur into one another, but there is still a need for some guidelines in order to follow the rotation and inform the authors of controversy and wording papers where the suggested resolutions should be located.  In addition, it seems to be a good idea to work through some form of topic rotation to maximize the educational breadth and experiences of four and five-year debaters.

Domestic topic wordings should be wordings where the topic “relates to issues within the United States.”  There are some very strong critiques of the use of the term domestic because it has been deployed by the patriarchy to mean “resigned to the home” and because it often assumes an inferior other—the “foreign.”  The term domestic also has been criticized for more than just its ideology, but also its utility.  Contemporary political issues are much more a combination of national and international –or “intermestic”—making the term less useful as a descriptor than it once was.  Regardless, we have to determine which wordings are not legal in nature and are focused on a national level.  “National” means primarily centered on the United States, taking place inside the borders of the United States.  In short, would a news outlet classify this resolution as a national news item or an international news item?  Is your flight domestic or international?  We know that dictionaries define “domestic” as “of or relating to a country’s internal affairs” (, acsd 4/27/2013) and we know that certain areas of policy such as health care, taxation, education, or infrastructure are typically domestic, but we do not have clearly articulated parameters for what is and is not domestic.  In other words, it is important to determine if “within the US” is primarily a geographic notion (making the Nuclear Arsenal and Immigration topics domestic and international), primarily a question of what populations are included in the scope of action, or primarily something more procedural like what committee the issue falls under in Congress.  Most non-legal topics that cover people in the United States in the initial action are domestic, most non-legal topics that cover people outside the United States (Constructive Engagement or South East Asia), or that cover people both inside and outside the United States (NATO, World Government) in the initial action are international topics.

International topic wordings should be wordings where the topic covers “primarily international relations or policy.”  International relations are bilateral or multilateral exchanges—including dialogue and diplomacy—between nations or between a nation and an independent external organization such as a multinational corporation or an NGO that operates abroad.  The international category should exclude some international law issues (which fall under the legal category), but that is a difficult line to draw.  A topic about the treaties process would arguably be a legal topic while a topic about the value of ratifying particular treaties is more likely to be in the international category.  An exclusively ICC topic would probably be in the legal category, while a topic about UN refugee policy would most likely be considered international.  J. Rochester, in Fundamental Principles of International Relations (Westview Press, 2010), states:
While it is true that the field has traditionally focused on matters of war and peace and the issue-area of international security, other issue-areas, such as international political economy, have attracted increasing attention in recent years…. What are we finally left with as a definition of international relations…is the study of who gets what, when, and how in the international arena (fn#50).

If the topic involves the United States and another country or countries and it is enacted through foreign policy or trade policy, particularly through the exchange of assistance or trade, it is probably an international topic.  It is tempting to see the international category as the one most directly linked to the executive branch, the domestic category as most closely linked to legislative action, and the legal topic most directly linked to the judiciary, but that reading of the rotation is not entirely accurate and there are exceptions to that type of topic break-down.  

Of the three categories, the legal one is most likely linked with the judiciary and the Supreme Court as an actor, even though a Supreme Court agent does not guarantee it is a legal topic and all legal topics do not have the Court as the agent.  From the rotation amendment, legal topic wordings should be wordings where the topic “relates to a controversy within legal jurisprudence and where the topic wording emphasizes legal research.”  Those parameters are open for interpretation because a lot of issues are controversial in legal literature and written about in law reviews.  “Of or related to the law” is too broad of a definition and “attached to a particular court case or legal doctrine” might be too narrow.  We do know, at a minimum, if the agent is the Supreme Court or the primary focus is on the precedent of certain court cases, it is probably a legal topic.  If the Bill of Rights or the Constitution is the primary focus of the wording, it is a legal topic.  The Law Dictionary in “What is Jurisprudence,” contends that: “Jurisprudence is more a formal than a material science. It has no direct concern with questions of moral or political policy, for they fall under the province of ethics and legislation” (, acsd 4/27/2013).  The idea that legal topics are not directly concerned with policy might be useful, but it is too restrictive to preclude ethics from the legal category.  It probably makes the most sense to think about legal topics as covering theories and principles—the general structure of the law—and not the implementation of particular laws.  Even a distinction between the universal and the particular will break down on some levels, but such a distinction does follow the idea that jurisprudence is the “Study of the principles and theories on which a legal system is founded, as opposed to study of the legal system itself” (, acsd 4/26/2013).  Of course a wording that focused on the legal system itself (such as a wording about rights), would be considered a legal topic.  When determining whether a topic is legal or not, the “you-know-it-when-you-see-it-approach” works in most instances, but it would still be better to build a set of parameters and helpful questions for determining which topics are legal are which one are not.  

As we entertain more wordings that use the passive voice or defend the use of agents other than the USFG, we may want to revisit this particular rotation.  Other schemes might involve a rotation through different agents (passive, usfg, international, other), a rotation through different types of action (economic, security, environmental, social, etc.) or some other division.  In the meantime, however, spelling out what we mean by the three current categories will help the overall process.  Looking forward to hearing more ideas.  

Thanks for reading,


« Last Edit: April 29, 2013, 03:25:36 AM by kevin kuswa » Logged
Jr. Member
Posts: 81

« Reply #1 on: May 01, 2013, 10:43:27 AM »

A thoughtful post, and one that probably deserves more discussion than it has thus far received.

That being said, I have very little to meaningfully contribute, but...

I have a sense that intuition will substitute for precision in most of the borderline cases that you describe. In that sense, I think that in the absence of any tentative consensus on criteria for inclusion in or exclusion from each of the areas, we are likely headed for a Potter Stewart/"I know it when I see it" sort of test.

I am undecided on whether or not that is a good thing and would be interested in hearing people's thoughts.

kevin kuswa
Sr. Member
Posts: 346

« Reply #2 on: May 02, 2013, 02:49:03 PM »

Hi Gonzo,

Not sure if the loose standard for these categories is the best way to go.  The concern in the future is two-fold: a discrepancy between a controversy/wording paper author and the committee, and borderline instances where a topic wording could be placed under more than one category.  Those scenarios are not hard to work through, but if we discuss what the categories mean a bit more we might have better parameters to use before we encounter a particular issue.  I hope all is well, enjoy the Spring.  

« Last Edit: May 02, 2013, 05:28:27 PM by kevin kuswa » Logged
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