Case: Baker v. Carr

59-cv-02724 | U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee

Filed Date: May 18, 1959

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Case Summary

This case was a malapportionment challenge resulting from Tennessee’s over 50-year failure to redistrict its legislative districts. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that redistricting claims brought under the Equal Protection Clause were justiciable. Further, the court created a categorical test to determine whether a case presented a non-justiciable political question. On May 18, 1959, numerous Tennessee voters filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tenne…

This case was a malapportionment challenge resulting from Tennessee’s over 50-year failure to redistrict its legislative districts. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that redistricting claims brought under the Equal Protection Clause were justiciable. Further, the court created a categorical test to determine whether a case presented a non-justiciable political question.

On May 18, 1959, numerous Tennessee voters filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee.  Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, they alleged the state’s failure to reapportion its state legislative districts violated both the Tennessee constitution and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The districts had not been apportioned since the 1901 Apportionment Act. Plaintiffs alleged that this led to a grossly disproportionate population distribution across districts and debasement of voting rights. In the time between 1901 and 1958, the number of qualified voters in Tennessee had grown from nearly 500,000 to over 2 million. At the time of filing, 37% of the voting population controlled a 33 to 20 seat majority in the state Senate. Defendants included Tennessee’s Secretary of State, Attorney General, Coordinator of Elections, and various other state election officials. Plaintiffs did not sue any legislative defendants, despite the state constitution requiring the legislature to redraw districts every ten years based on the number of qualified voters.

Plaintiffs sought declaratory relief that the 1901 Apportionment Act and accompanying provisions of the Tennessee Code violated the Equal Protection Clause. They also sought an injunction requiring defendants to either hold statewide elections under a new plan based on the 1950 federal census or at-large without regard to districts.

In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 2284, a three-judge panel was convened to hear the challenge of the “constitutionality of the apportionment of congressional districts or the apportionment of any statewide legislative body.”

On December 21, 1959, the three-judge panel granted defendants’ motion to dismiss (179 F.Supp. 824). They held that the case presented a non-justiciable political question, relying on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Colegrove v. Green (328 U.S. 549). The panel “entirely agree[d]” that Tennessee was guilty of a “clear violation” of the state and federal constitution. However, the remedy “clearly [did] not lie with the courts.” If the court declared the 1901 Apportionment Act unconstitutional, there would be no backup plan. Thus, the only remaining remedy would be for the court to get directly involved in redistricting. This would have injected the court into the “political thicket” and been a task the court was not well equipped for.

Plaintiffs appealed directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted certiorari.

On March 26, 1962, the Supreme Court voted 6-2 to reverse the three-judge panel (369 U.S. 186). Justice Brennan wrote the majority opinion. The Court held that redistricting claims brought under the Equal Protection Clause were justiciable, and remanded for further proceedings in the district court.

The U.S. Supreme Court created the following test. A case presented a non-justiciable political question if it fell inextricably into any of the following categories:

  • A textually demonstrable constitutional commitment of the issue to a coordinate political department; or
  • A lack of judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving it; or
  • The impossibility of deciding without an initial policy determination of a kind clearly for nonjudicial discretion; or
  • The impossibility of a court's undertaking an independent resolution without expressing a lack of respect due coordinate branches of government; or
  • An unusual need for unquestioning adherence to a political decision already made; or
  • The potentiality of embarrassment from multifarious pronouncements by various departments on one question.

Justice Brennan wrote that the present case fit into none of these categories. Defendants had argued that the Guaranty Clause (where the United States guarantees every state a “republican form of government”) was such a demonstrable constitutional commitment of redistricting to the legislature. The Court reasoned that although under Luther v. Borden (48 U.S. 1), redistricting challenges under the Guaranty Clause are nonjusticiable, that was not the case for Equal Protection Clause challenges. Additionally, “[j]udicial standards under the Equal Protection Clause are well developed and familiar[.]” The opinion also referenced the Supreme Court’s decision in Gomillion v. Lightfoot (364 U.S. 339), a racial gerrymandering case. In Gomillion, a state’s insulation from federal judicial review was “not carried over when state power is used as an instrument for circumnavigating a federally protected right.”

Justice Frankfurter and Harlan dissented. Frankfurter argued there was no real distinction between the Equal Protection Clause and Guaranty Clause in the context of this case. He also argued the court was violating a long tradition of judicial restraint and separation of powers. Harlan argued the court had lost sight of the real issue, that there was no claim upon which relief could be granted. Nothing in the Fourteenth Amendment suggests state legislatures must structure districts to reflect voters equally. Additionally, plaintiffs had failed to sufficiently prove any Equal Protection violation.

On June 22, 1962, the three-judge panel issued its opinion pursuant to the remand (206 F.Supp. 341). They determined that apportionment of only one house of Tennessee’s bicameral legislation needed to be based on the number of qualified voters. As such, Tennessee’s House of Representatives was to be based solely on the number of qualified voters. However, the state Senate would be redistricted according to a “two-thirds” principle that entitled counties and legislative districts comprising two or more counties having two-thirds of necessary population ratio to one legislative member in one house.

On June 15, 1964, the three-judge panel’s decision was contradicted by a separate U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Reynolds v. Sims (377 U.S. 533). In Reynolds, the court explicitly stated the “one person, one vote” principle and that “seats in both houses of a bicameral state legislature must be apportioned on a population basis.” We were not able to find any concrete information on the immediate response by Tennessee officials to this development.

Summary Authors

Eric Gripp (2/1/2023)

People


Judge(s)

Boyd, Marion Speed (Tennessee)

Attorney for Plaintiff

Anderson, J W (Tennessee)

Atkins, Hobart F (Tennessee)

Attorney for Defendant

Anderson, J W (Tennessee)

Expert/Monitor/Master/Other

Branstetter, C. Dewey (Tennessee)

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Documents in the Clearinghouse

Document

59-cv-02724

Opinion

Dec. 21, 1959

Dec. 21, 1959

Order/Opinion

179 F.Supp. 179

59-cv-02724

Opinion

Dec. 21, 1959

Dec. 21, 1959

Order/Opinion

179 F.Supp. 179

00103

Brief for Appellants

Supreme Court of the United States

Feb. 21, 1961

Feb. 21, 1961

Pleading / Motion / Brief

1961 WL 1961

00103

Brief for the United States as Amicus Curiae

Supreme Court of the United States

March 14, 1961

March 14, 1961

Pleading / Motion / Brief

1961 WL 1961

00103

Brief and Argument for Appellees

Supreme Court of the United States

March 17, 1961

March 17, 1961

Pleading / Motion / Brief

1961 WL 1961

00103

Reply Brief for Appellants

Supreme Court of the United States

April 6, 1961

April 6, 1961

Pleading / Motion / Brief

1961 WL 1961

61-00006

Brief for the United States as Amicus Curiae on Reargument

Supreme Court of the United States

Sept. 14, 1961

Sept. 14, 1961

Pleading / Motion / Brief

1961 WL 1961

61-00006

Supplemental Brief and Argument for Appellees

Supreme Court of the United States

Sept. 19, 1961

Sept. 19, 1961

Pleading / Motion / Brief

1961 WL 1961

61-00006

The District Court's Opinion and Order of Dismissal

Supreme Court of the United States

March 26, 1962

March 26, 1962

Order/Opinion

369 U.S. 369

61-00006

Opinion of the Court

Supreme Court of the United States

March 26, 1962

March 26, 1962

Order/Opinion

369 U.S. 369

Docket

Last updated April 9, 2024, 3:11 a.m.

Docket sheet not available via the Clearinghouse.

Case Details

State / Territory: Tennessee

Case Type(s):

Election/Voting Rights

Key Dates

Filing Date: May 18, 1959

Case Ongoing: No reason to think so

Plaintiffs

Plaintiff Description:

Numerous qualified voters from Tennessee.

Public Interest Lawyer: Unknown

Filed Pro Se: No

Class Action Sought: No

Class Action Outcome: Not sought

Defendants

State of Tennessee, State

Case Details

Causes of Action:

42 U.S.C. § 1983

State law

Constitutional Clause(s):

Equal Protection

Available Documents:

Injunctive (or Injunctive-like) Relief

Any published opinion

U.S. Supreme Court merits opinion

Outcome

Prevailing Party: Plaintiff

Nature of Relief:

Injunction / Injunctive-like Settlement

Declaratory Judgment

Source of Relief:

Litigation

Order Duration: 1962 - None

Issues

Voting:

Redistricting/district composition

Vote dilution

Voting: General & Misc.