Reynolds v. Sims 1964

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Reynolds v. Sims 1964

Appellant: R. A. Reynolds

Appellee: M. O. Sims

Appellant's Claim: That the creation of voting districts is the sole responsibility of state legislatures with no appropriate role for federal courts.

Chief Lawyer for Appellant: W. McLean Pitts

Chief Lawyer for Appellee: Charles Morgan, Jr.

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

Justices Dissenting: John Marshall Harlan II

Date of Decision: June 15, 1964

Decision: Ruled in favor of Sims by finding that the equal protection guarantee of the Fourteenth Amendment requires that legislative voting districts contain approximately the same number of people.

Significance: The decision meant at least one house of most state legislatures was unconstitutional. Within two years of the ruling, the boundaries of legislative districts had been redrawn all across the nation.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Baker v. Carr (1962) began a reapportionment revolution. Reapportionment is the redrawing of legislative district voting boundaries to maintain an equal distribution of voters so that each elected representative in a legislative assembly represents approximately the same number of people. In Baker the Court found that federal courts could indeed address the problem of unequal numbers of voters in districts or unequal apportionment.

Apportionment problems arose in the early twentieth century with the shift of the American population away from rural areas into urban (city) centers. Most states had drawn their legislative district boundaries around 1900 when the majority of people lived in the country. Most had never redrawn those boundaries. By 1960, with the urban population shift, nearly every state had urban districts populated by many more people than the rural districts. Yet, each district still elected one representative regardless of its population, resulting in under representation of city dwellers.

In keeping with the 1962 Baker ruling, one year later, Justice William O. Douglas in Gray v. Sanders (1963) coined the phrase "one person, one vote." Douglas wrote,

How then can one person be given twice or 10 times the voting power of another person in a statewide election merely because he lives in a rural area [in the country] . . . all who participate in the election are to have an equal vote. . . This is required by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment . . . political equality . . . can mean only one thing—one person, one vote.

Likewise, in Wesberry v. Sanders (1964) the Court, invalidating (disapproving) Georgia's unequal congressional districts, applied the "one person, one vote" principle of equal voter representation. Only four months later in the landmark case Reynolds v. Sims (1964), eight Supreme Court justices agreed on the requirements under the Fourteenth Amendment for state reapportionment.

Alabama Districts Favor Rural Interests

Reynolds involved the apportionment of Alabama's legislative voting districts. Alabama's history of apportionment had followed the pattern typical of many states. District boundaries had been drawn through rural Alabama in 1901. These remained unchanged for the next sixty years despite Alabama's constitutional requirements for legislative representation based on population and for reapportionment every ten years. Over the sixty years, Alabama's population base had shifted from rural communities to cities and suburbs. In 1960 the inequality was dramatic. For example, Alabama least populated congressional district had 6,700 individuals while its largest had 104,000 people. The 6,700 were represented by one elected legislator just as the 104,000 were represented by one. The 1960 census revealed that counties containing only 27.5 percent of the total population elected a majority of state representatives. Rural interests dominated the legislative agendas. The rural legislators refused to reapportion legislative voting districts because they would likely lose a great deal of power. Many would potentially be voted out of office.

Faced with these markedly lopsided districts and the unwillingness of the Alabama legislature to reapportion, voters in several Alabama counties, including M. O. Sims of urban Jefferson County, brought suit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama challenging the existing apportionment of the Alabama legislature as unconstitutional. These voters claimed that the unequal representation of citizens in Alabama districts violated the equal protection guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Fourteenth Amendment declares "no state . . . shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction [geographical area over which it has authority] the equal protection of the laws." Equal protection means that persons in similar situations, in this case all voters living in Alabama, must be treated equally under the laws.

At the time, the Alabama Legislature, patterned after the U.S. Congress, consisted of two legislative chambers, a thirty-five member Senate and a House of Representatives with 106 members. The Alabama Senate's representation was based on a system of senate districts and counties, not on population. This was like the U.S. Senate which has two senators for each state, regardless of population.

The three-judge district court panel ordered the legislature to reapportion using a plan based only on population. Alabama immediately challenged the order in the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court agreed to take the case. Though the case accompanied a number of other reapportionment cases from various states, the Court would announce the reasons for its decisions in Reynolds v. Sims.

People, Not Trees or Acres

Alabama argued that states alone should apportion legislative districts. Federal courts should stay out of the issue. Writing for the 8-1 majority, Chief Justice Earl Warren dismissed Alabama's arguments noting that the Alabama legislature had refused to reapportion itself and had left no other avenues open for the urban voters to seek correction of their grievances. The Court had no choice but to intervene (become involved).

First, Chief Justice Warren, calling forth the "one person, one vote" principle of equal representation, stated that discrimination in setting legislative voting boundaries could not be tolerated any more than discrimination in voting based on race or economic status. Allowing rural legislative dominance clearly prevented equal representation of Alabama's more urban voters. Penning an often quoted phrase, Warren wrote,

Legislators represent people not trees or acres. Legislators are elected by voters, nor farms, or cities or economic interests. As long as ours is a representative form of government, and our legislatures are those instruments of government elected directly by and directly representative of the people, the right to elect legislators in a free and unimpaired fashion is a bedrock of our political system. . .

Warren continued,

. . . the weight of a citizens vote cannot be made to depend on where he lives. . . A citizen, a qualified voter, is no more nor no less so because he lives in the city or on the farm . . . the Equal Protection Clause demands no less than substantially equal state legislative representation for all citizens, of all places as well as all races.

Secondly, Warren rejected Alabama's argument that it should be allowed to apportion its Senate based on geographical area just as the U.S. Senate in Washington, D.C. Warren noted that state constitutions historically called for legislative assemblies to be based on population. Warren found that the Framers of the U.S. Constitution had no intention of establishing Congress as a model for the state legislative bodies. Warren wrote,

We hold that as a basic constitutional standard, the Equal Protection Clause requires that the seats in both houses of a bicameral [two assemblies] state legislature must be apportioned on a population basis.


G errymandering is the redrawing, or reapportionment, of legislative voting districts to favor one group over another. This practice generally creates very irregularly shaped districts. The term was coined when Massachusetts voting districts were reapportioned under Governor Elbridge Gerry in 1812. One of the resulting districts was oddly shaped like a salamander. A newspaper editor created a political cartoon by adding wings, claws, and teeth, and named the character Gerrymander.

With state legislatures in charge of reapportionment, a common type of gerrymandering is to draw district lines favoring the political party in power. For example, if the Republican Party is in power, they might divide a district which traditionally votes Democratic. The Democratic district could be split into sections which are then included into voting districts with a Republican majority. The Republican majority would dominate over the Democratic vote. Gerrymandering has also been used to divide up blocks of minority groups such as black Americans or Hispanics. On the other hand, gerrymandering of district lines has also created racial districts to strengthen the chance of an election of racial minority legislators.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Davis v. Bandemer (1981) that gerrymandered districts may be challenged constitutionally even when they meet the "one person, one vote" test. Two cases involving racial gerrymandering which reached the Court were Gomillion v. Lightfoot (1960) and Shaw v. Reno (1993).

Third, Warren recognized in practicality that exactly equal mathematical numbers in each district would not be possible but Warren observed,

The Equal Protection Clause requires that a State make an honest and good faith effort to construct districts, in both houses of its legislature, as nearly of equal population as is practicable.

Fourth, Warren directed states to reapportion minimally every ten years.

Entire Country Redrawn

With the Reynolds ruling, at least one house of most state legislatures was found unconstitutional, making complete redrawing of district boundaries necessary. After the decision, forty-nine state legislatures reapportioned one or both of their assemblies. Only Oregon, in 1961, had completed a fair redrawing of district lines before the Supreme Court cases of the reapportionment revolution.

The decision resulted in a shift away from rural dominated state legislatures. However, the Court had left to the states the actual redrawing of boundaries. Political "gerrymandering," although generally following "one person, one vote" guidelines, manipulated election boundaries to favor certain groups, again threatening fair representation. Gerrymandering cases reached the Supreme Court in the 1980s.

Suggestions for further reading

Clayton, Dewey M. African Americans and the Politics of Congressional Redistricting. New York: Garland Publishing, 1999.

Cortner, Richard C. The Apportionment Cases. Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 1970.

Rush, Mark E. Does Redistricting Make a Difference? Partisan Representation and Electoral Behavior. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

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Reynolds v. Sims 1964

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