Baker v. Carr 1962

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Baker v. Carr 1962

Appellants: Charles W. Baker and others

Appellees: Joe E. Carr and others

Appellants' Claim: That voting districts drawn in a way that produces unequal political representation violates the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause.

Chief Lawyers for Appellants: Charles S. Rhyme, Z.T. Osborn, Jr.

Chief Lawyer for Appellees: Jack Wilson, Assistant Attorney General of Tennessee

Justices for the Court: Hugo L. Black, William J. Brennan, Jr., Tom C. Clark, William O. Douglas, Potter Stewart, Chief Justice Earl Warren

Justices Dissenting: Felix Frankfurter, John Marshall Harlan II (Charles Evans Whittaker did not participate)

Date of Decision: March 26, 1962

Decision: Ruled in favor of Baker by finding that constitutional challenges to apportionment could be addressed by federal courts.

Significance: This decision opened the door for under represented voters to have their voting districts redrawn under the direction of federal courts. The ruling initiated a decade of lawsuits eventually resulting in a redrawing of the nation's political map. The decision represented a major shift in the Court's position on the relationship of voting districts and constitutional protections.

The purpose of voting in America is to give citizens the opportunity to determine who will be making governmental decisions. Those elected are expected to represent the interests of the people in their district when crafting laws and policies. The way boundaries of voting districts are drawn and the number of voters contained within each district largely determines how fairly people are represented by that process.

For example, electing members to the U.S. House of Representatives is based on population figures. Congress limits the number of House members to a total of 435 nationwide. The number of representatives from each state is subject to change every ten years depending on population changes recorded by the U.S. census, a count of people and where they live. States gaining or losing population between the 1990 census and 2000, must redraw their boundaries of their voting districts to reflect the population change. This process, known as "redistricting," is carried out to distribute, or "apportion," government representatives according to the population. The term "reapportionment" commonly refers to the entire process.

A Political Process

Reapportionment is a very political process. The political party in power in the state legislature controls how district boundaries will be drawn. If Republicans are in power, they will attempt to create or maintain "safe" Republican districts. If Democrats are in power they will do likewise. Another concern in reapportionment involves unfair treatment of minorities such as black Americans and Hispanics. The way districts are drawn will determine how likely they can elect a black or Hispanic legislator.

Reapportionment has long been a difficult process to resolve to everyone's liking. The goal is to have voting districts of relatively equal population and not create districts that discriminate against any particular group of voters. When the drawing of district lines has been considered unfair, the issue has proceeded to the courts. In 1946 in Colegrove v. Green the U.S. Supreme Court found that apportionment issues were political questions best left to state legislatures. The Court described apportionment as a "political thicket" into which it was not about to jump. However, in Baker v. Carr (1962) the Court "jumped in."

The Tennessee Thicket

In 1900 America was predominately rural with district boundary lines drawn through the farming countryside. However, by the mid-twentieth century a population shift to urban (city) areas occurred, yet states failed to redraw district lines. As a result, a rural district with few people would elect one representative just like a nearby urban district with a large population. Unequal representation resulted with many more representatives elected from rural, less populated districts. City inhabitants cried "foul" to this unfairness.

Such a situation developed in Tennessee. Between 1901 and 1961 Tennessee experienced substantial growth and a redistribution of its population from rural to urban locations. Voting districts had been drawn in 1901 under Tennessee's Apportionment Act. For more than sixty years, all proposals for reapportionment failed to pass in the state assemblies leaving Tennessee city residents under represented. Approximately one-third of the state's population elected two-thirds of the members of the state legislature. One rural representative in the Tennessee House of Representatives was so bold as to say he believed in taxing city populations where the money was so he could spend the revenue on the rural areas.

Charles Baker was mayor of Millington, Tennessee, a rapidly growing Memphis suburb. In attempting to cope with Millington's growing problems, Baker became painfully aware that under representation of urban areas was leading to the neglect of needs and problems of city residents. Baker decided the only way to correct the financial woes of Tennessee cities was to force the Tennessee government to reapportion the legislative districts so that each member of the legislature represented about the same number of people.

Baker and several city dwellers brought suit on behalf of all city residents in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. Joe C. Carr, Tennessee Secretary of State, was named defendant. They charged that urban voters were denied their equal protection guarantees contained in the Fourteenth Amendment. The amendment reads that no state shall "deny to any person within its jurisdiction [geographic area over which it has authority] the equal protection of the laws." Equal protection means that all persons or groups of persons in similar situations must be treated the same under the laws. Persons living in Tennessee are all in the similar situation of being Tennessee residents. Therefore, they should be treated equally under apportionment law by being equally represented in legislative bodies.

A three judge panel of the district court dismissed Baker's case with the familiar reasoning that Baker's complaint was a political question which the courts had no authority to answer. Such matters, according to the district court, must be dealt with by the state legislature. Baker appealed and the U.S. Supreme Court, jumping into the political thicket of reapportionment, agreed to hear his case.

A Decision of Tremendous Potential

Everyone involved in the case recognized the tremendous impact the ruling could potentially have. The Court heard three hours of oral argument, allowing attorneys to represent their views at far greater length than normal. Following the initial argument on April 19 and 20, 1961, the case was reargued on October 9, 1961. The justices soon released their opinions in 163 pages.

Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., writing for the 6-2 majority, delivered the Court's opinion. Brennan disagreed with the federal district courts decision that it had no power to hear the case. He wrote that Baker's complaint clearly arose from a provision of the U.S. Constitution, namely the Fourteenth Amendment, so it fell within the federal court's power. Brennan continued this federal court power is defined in Article III, Section 2, of the Constitution providing,

the judicial Power (the court's 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,. . .

As a result, federal courts could properly consider questions of reapportionment. It was not a political question out of reach of a court of law. Baker's complaint of being denied equal protection was justified under the Constitution. Brennan observed that failure to apportion legislative districts of a state clearly violated equal protection of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court, concluding Baker deserved a trial, sent the case back to the federal district court for a trial and resolution.

Extraordinary Impact

The Baker decision abruptly abandoned the long held belief that apportionment issues, because of their political nature, could not be argued before the courts. Indeed, it opened the door of federal courts throughout the nation to voters challenging the way states drew voting district boundaries with far reaching results. Justice Brennan's opinion cast doubt on state redistricting systems throughout the nation.


W riting for the U.S. Supreme Court in Marbury v. Madison (1803), the legendary Chief Justice John Marshall observed that the Court's sole role is to decide on the rights of individuals but, "Questions in their nature political . . . can never be made in this Court." The Court often used this reasoning for not deciding a case. This policy avoided battles with Congress, the president, or the states. Power struggles between political parties, foreign policy and affairs, and questions of legislative procedures have long been considered political questions in which the Court steadfastly refused to intrude. Likewise, the Court viewed challenges to the way states drew legislative districts off limits until Baker v. Carr (1962). In Baker, the Court concluded the question of unequal distribution of population among districts is a constitutional fairness question rather than a political question. In the 1980s and 1990s the Court also entered into controversies over political gerrymanders, a process of drawing voting district boundaries to give one party or group an advantage over another.

Although opening the federal courts to this issue, the decision did not provide a formula for those courts to follow in determining when apportionment was unfair. But the reapportionment revolution was in motion. By 1964 in Gray v. Sanders, Wesberry v. Sanders, and Reynolds v. Sims, the Court established and confirmed a policy of equal representation referred to as "one person, one vote." President Jimmy Carter in his book Turning Point: A Candidate, a State, and a Nation Come of Age, described how Baker transformed state politics, particularly Southern politics, by redrawing districts and opening up new seats. "A landmark [case] in the development of representative government," remarked U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Chief Justice Earl Warren called it "the most vital decision" of his long career on the Court. By the late 1960s, voting districts around the country had been redrawn to obey the Supreme Court's call for equal representation. Following the 1970 census, under representation of urban areas came to an end.

Suggestions for further reading

Carter, Jimmy. Turning Point: A Candidate, a State, and a Nation Come of Age. New York: Times Books, 1994.

Grofman, Bernard. Voting Rights, Voting Wrongs: The Legacy of Baker v. Carr. Priority Press Publications, 1990.

Wilson, Anna. Discrimination: African Americans Struggle for Equality. Vero Beach, FL: Rourke Corporation, Inc., 1992.

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Baker v. Carr 1962

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Baker v. Carr 1962