Baker v. Carr

views updated Jun 11 2018


The ideal of one person, one vote motivated the founders of the United States of America to establish a census when they drafted the U.S. Constitution in 1787. Although that ideal has not yet been fully realized—because the census still undercounts racial and ethnic minorities, among others—the country took a giant step closer to equal representation for every citizen nearly two centuries later, during the era of the civil rights movement. On March 26, 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case of Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, 82 S. Ct. 691, 7 L. Ed. 2d 663 (1962), that state congressional districts of unequal size were unconstitutional. In a ruling that Chief Justice earl warren later called the most important of his tenure on the Court, Justice william j. brennan jr. wrote: "A citizen's right to vote free of arbitrary impairment by state action has been judicially recognized as a right secured by the Constitution."

Also significant because it examined the notion of "political questions" and whether courts could address them, the Baker case became a springboard for future apportionment lawsuits. In June 1964, the Supreme Court ruled on appeals from 15 states that had used Baker as a precedent, holding that both houses of a state legislature must be apportioned substantially on the basis of population. Within two years, every state had taken some type of apportionment action. By the late 1960s, congressional districts around the country had been redrawn to meet the Supreme Court's call for equal representation, and after the 1970 census, underrepresented urban areas were finally given an equal voice in Congress.

Every decade since 1790, U.S. citizens have complied with the Constitution and counted themselves. Whereas on its simplest level the census is a means to document historical changes in the U.S. population, it also determines how federal funds, power, political clout, and representation are divided, or apportioned, among the people of the United States. It was the notion of representation, more specifically equal representation, that compelled Charles W. Baker and other qualified voters in Tennessee to bring a lawsuit against Tennessee's secretary of state Joe C. Carr, on the grounds that the state's 1901 apportionment statute (Acts Tenn. 1901, c. 122) violated the fourteenth amendment of the Constitution. The plaintiffs argued that Tennessee's method of unequally apportioning the members of the general assembly among the state's 95 counties unconstitutionally deprived people in the state of equal protection of the laws and was obsolete because of a significant growth and population shift since 1900.

The plaintiffs' first round in court brought failure when a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee dismissed their complaint on December 21, 1959 (Baker, 179 F. Supp. 824). The panel dismissed the complaint on two grounds: (1) that the court lacked jurisdiction of the subject matter because it was a political question and(2) that the complaint failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.

The plaintiffs appealed, and on November 21, 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it had probable jurisdiction in the matter. This decision was significant because before the Supreme Court heard the Baker case, courts had abstained from addressing apportionment issues because they were considered political in nature. In the 1946 Supreme Court case Cole-grove v. Green, 328 U.S. 549, 66 S. Ct. 1198, 90 L. Ed. 1432 (1946), Justice felix frankfurter called apportionment a "political thicket" into which the judiciary should not venture. The subsequent ruling in Baker changed that interpretation, stating that federal courts possessed jurisdiction of the subject, that the citizens in Tennessee were entitled to relief, and that the federal district court in the state could settle the challenge to the apportionment statute of Tennessee.

In addressing the concern of some of his fellow Supreme Court justices, who warned that the matter before them was a political question and therefore not appropriately dealt with in a court of law, Justice Brennan carefully wrote—and rewrote, ten times—his opinion in the 1962 decision. Brennan stated: "The mere fact that the suit seeks protection of a political right does not mean it presents a political question. Such an objection is little more than a play upon words." He added that the plaintiffs' complaint did present a justiciable constitutional cause of action and that the Fourteenth Amendment did provide judicial protection to the right asserted. Justices Frankfurter and john marshall harlan dissented, stating that Brennan should not inject the Court "into the clash of political forces and political settlements." The Court's 6–2 ruling in favor of the plaintiffs forced state legislatures to reapportion their seats to reflect population shifts before the elections that were to occur in the fall of 1962. It also decreed one person, one vote as part of the United States' constitutional heritage and opened the door to challenging state voting procedures and malapportionment on constitutional grounds.

In his book Turning Point: A Candidate, a State, and a Nation Come of Age, former president jimmy carter described how revolutionary the Baker decision was in the 1960s and how it transformed state politics, especially southern politics. Carter wrote that the Georgia state government, like many others, proposed a number of stalling ploys, fake reapportionment plans, and other ways to avoid the shift in political power that the one-person, one-vote ruling had been designed to cause. "The beneficiaries of the [old] system were the ones now charged with … changing it," he wrote. "At the same time, they would be reducing drastically the relative voting strength of their own constituents. It was understandable that [they] would do everything possible to circumvent or postpone the effect of the court's mandate." Federal judges rejected the bogus plans, however, and by late summer 1962, the state's political process had been thrown wide open. Incumbent politicians were suddenly without districts, and new seats had opened up. In these circumstances, a few weeks before the election, Carter decided to run for the Georgia State Senate.

further readings

Charles, Guy-Uriel E. 2002. "Constitutional Pluralism and Democratic Politics: Reflections on the Interpretive Approach of Baker and Carr. North Carolina Law Review 80 (May).

"A Final Victory Marks the End of a Career." 1990. National Law Journal (August 13).

Fuentes-Rohwer, Luis. 2002. "Baker's Promise, Equal Protection, and the Modern Redistricting Revolution: A Plea for Rationality. North Carolina Law Review 80 (May).

"Koohi v. United States." 1993. Georgia Law Review 28 (fall).

Pushaw, Robert J., Jr. 2001."Bush v. Gore: Looking at Baker v. Carr in a Conservative Mirror." Constitutional Commentary 18 (summer).

Richie, Robert, and Steven Hill. 1999. Reflecting All of Us: The Case of Proportional Representation. Boston: Beacon.

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

"Some Implications of Arrow's Theorem for Voting Rights." 1995. Stanford Law Review 47 (January).

"The Trustees of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs v. Yamasaki: The Application of the Political Question Doctrine to Hawaii's Public Land Trust Dispute." 1988. University of Hawaii Law Review 10 (winter).

"United States v. Alvarez-Machain: Waltzing with the Political Question Doctrine." 1994. Connecticut Law Review 26 (winter).

"U.S. Supreme Court." 1990. National Law Journal (June 4).

"When Restraint Requires Activism." 1990. Stanford Law Review 42 (July).


Apportionment; Brennan, William Joseph, Jr.; Equal Protection; Failure to State a Claim; Fourteenth Amendment; Frankfurter, Felix; Political Question; Reynolds v. Sims; Voting.

Baker v. Carr

views updated May 08 2018


BAKER V. CARR 369 U.S. 186 (1962), decided on 26 March 1962, arose in Tennessee, which in violation of its own constitution had not reapportioned its general assembly for over sixty years, maintaining rural, conservative control of the state legislature and leaving its more liberal urban areas severely underrepresented. Six of eight participating justices agreed that federal courts had jurisdiction to decide the complaints that Tennessee's malapportionment violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Justice William J. Brennan wrote the opinion, which was among the Warren Court's boldest constitutional decisions.

In Colegrove v. Green (1946) the Court had pronounced reapportionment among the political questions that traditionally were not appropriate for judicial decision. However, such restraint was inconsistent with the Warren Court's active protection of civil and political rights and with the post–New Deal Court's general philosophy of promoting the openness of the democratic process and protecting minorities. In the years following Baker v. Carr the Warren Court established the principle of one person, one vote, forcing a major realignment of representation in nearly every state, most of which had apportioned at least one house of their legislatures by some standard other than numerical representation. The decision encouraged Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which made it illegal to discriminate against racial and other minorities in electoral districting. Sub-sequent Court decisions built upon both Baker v. Carr and the Voting Rights Act to encourage equal representation. But Baker v. Carr did not have the expected effect of shifting political power to more liberal urban areas. Instead it helped assure equal representation of the booming suburbs, whose representatives often joined those of rural areas to promote conservative social and economic policies.


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

Grofman, Bernard. Voting Rights, Voting Wrongs: The Legacy of "Baker v. Carr." New York: Twentieth Century Fund, 1990.

Michael LesBenedict

See alsoApportionment ; Voting Rights Act of 1965 .

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Baker v Carr