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Constitution Daily

On This Day, Supreme Court Reviews Redistricting

On March 26, 1962, the Supreme Court decided Baker v. Carr, finding that it had the power to review the redistricting of state legislative districts under the 14th Amendment. The decision was part of the Warren Court’s series of major cases on civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s, and it is associated with establishing the “one person, one vote” rule.

The case came out of Shelby County, Tennessee, where the city of Memphis sits, which had not reapportioned its legislative district since 1901. Between 1901 and 1961, the state’s population increased from over 2 million people, of whom nearly 500,000 were eligible voters to over 3.5 million people, of whom over 2 million were eligible voters. The Tennessee Constitution required legislative districts be redrawn every 10 years according to the federal census in order to provide for districts of “substantially equal population.” Charles Baker was the former Republican Mayor of Milligan, Tennessee and he argued that Tennessee’s malapportionment constituted a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Sixteen years earlier, in the 1946 case of Colegrove v. Green, the Court, in an opinion by Justice Felix Frankfurter, rejected a similar challenge to Illinois’ redistricting scheme. Frankfurter decided that it was a political question only to be resolved by the legislative branches of government because Article I, Section IV gave Congress exclusive power to secure fair representation of the states in the House. Tennessee defended its apportionment scheme not only on the basis of Colegrove, but on the premise that it infringed upon its own state constitution and was therefore not a matter federal courts could rule on.

Colegrove is significant because it previewed the two most important issues in Baker—whether courts could craft standards to handle apportionment claims and, if they did so, whether such standards would infringe on federalism by controlling the states’ political processes. Two years later, in MacDougall v. Green, the Court followed Colegrove in stating that, “[i]t would be strange indeed, and doctrinaire, for this Court, applying such broad constitutional concepts as due process and equal protection of the laws, to deny a State the power to assure a proper diffusion of political initiative.” The Court had deemed review of state apportionment schemes a “political question” not justiciable by federal courts (a doctrine which had its origins in the 1848 decision Luther v. Borden, a case arising out of the “Dorr Rebellion” in Rhode Island which decided Congress, not the federal courts, had the ultimate say over whether a state government was republican for purposes of Article IV).

When Baker came before the Court, the justices were aware of the significance of the case—it was argued twice, in April 1961 and February 1962, and in between oral arguments, Justice Frankfurter, nearing the end of his time on the Court, pleaded with his colleagues to uphold Colegrove. Frankfurter believed there was no violation of the federal Constitution here to be addressed.

In a 6-2 majority opinion written by Justice William Brennan, Baker distinguished Colegrove. The Court ruled that federal courts had “subject matter jurisdiction” over questions of apportionment under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, separate from Article IV, Section IV or the “guarantee clause” of the Constitution. By this, Brennan meant that a violation of the 14th Amendment was a “case or controversy” arising under the Constitution according to Article III, Section II, which states: “The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority.”

Brennan argued that questions about the constitutionality of state apportionment schemes under the 14th Amendment was not a “political question” limited to the legislative process. He laid out a six-prong test for what constituted a “political question,” including: (1) “a textually demonstrable constitutional commitment of the issue to a coordinate” political branch; (2) a lack of “judicially manageable standards” for resolving the issue; (3) the “impossibility of deciding without an initial policy determination” from a nonjudicial actor; (4) the inability of federal courts to resolve the issue without harming “separation of powers” and respect for the “coordinate branches of government”; (5) an “unusual need for unquestioning adherence to a political decision already made”; and (6) the potential for “embarrassment from multifarious pronouncements by various departments on one question.”

Two years later, in two cases—Reynolds v. Sims and Wesberry v. Sanders—the Court further cemented the “one person, one vote” doctrine. In Reynolds, the Court held that a state must make “an honest and good faith effort to construct districts, in both houses of its legislature, as nearly of equal population as is practicable” and in Wesberry, the five-member majority found that Article I required that “as nearly as practicable one man’s vote in a congressional election is to be worth as much as another’s.”

Ultimately, the Baker case merely decided that the Supreme Court had judicial power to hear such challenges to state apportionment schemes. Yet, Chief Justice Earl Warren said that Baker was perhaps the “most important case” that the Court decided during his leadership. The case led to a large reapportionment movement across the nation which resulted in the redrawing of legislative districts in every state and greater representation for African American voters. However, the legacy of Baker remains a live issue, as just last year, the Supreme Court in Rucho v. Common Clause ruled that partisan gerrymandering schemes were “political questions” beyond the reach of federal courts.

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