Baker v. Carr (1962)

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Case Summary

In the State legislature of Tennessee, representation was determined by a 1901 law setting the number of legislators for each county. Urban areas, which had grown greatly in population since 1901, were underrepresented. Mayor Baker of Nashville brought suit, saying that the apportionment denied voters of urban areas equal protection of the law as guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. The federal court refused to enter the “political thicket“ of State districting, and the case was appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Court's Decision

In a 6-2 ruling, the Supreme Court held that federal courts have the power to determine the constitutionality of a State's voting districts.

Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., wrote the majority opinion, stating that the plaintiffs' constitutional right to have their votes count fairly gave them the necessary legal interest to bring the lawsuit. He argued that the case did not involve a “political question“ that prevented judicial review. A court could determine the constitutionality of a State's apportionment decisions, he wrote, without interfering with the legislature's political judgments. The case was returned to the federal court.

Justice William O. Douglas wrote a concurring opinion. He declared that if a voter no longer has “the full constitutional value of his franchise [right to vote], and the legislative branch fails to take appropriate restorative action, the doors of the courts must be open to him.“

In a dissenting opinion, Justice John Harlan II argued that the federal equal protection clause does not prevent a State “from choosing any electoral legislative structure it thinks best suited to the interests, temper, and customs of its people.“ If a State chose to “distribute electoral strength among geographical units, rather than according to a census of population,“ he wrote, that choice “is…a rational decision of policy…entitled to equal respect from this Court.“

More on the Case

By holding that voters could challenge the constitutionality of electoral apportionment in federal court, Baker v. Carr opened the doors of the federal courts to a long line of apportionment cases. One year later, Douglas extended the Baker ruling by establishing the “one man, one vote“ principle in Gray v. Sanders. In 1964, Wesberry v. Sanders extended that principle to federal elections, holding that “…as nearly as practicable, one man's vote in a congressional election is to be worth as much as another's.“

Apportionment cases have become steadily more complex. Since 1993, the Supreme Court has reviewed various State and local efforts to design legislative districts in ways that would help minority candidates. The Court has invalidated those districts if race was a “predominant factor“ in their design.

One such case is Hunt v. Cromartie, decided in 1999. In 1992, the North Carolina legislature created a district that connected several areas with many black voters. The new district was 160 miles long and in some places was no wider than the interstate highway. The Supreme Court found insufficient evidence to prove that the legislature had been racially motivated when drawing up the electoral district, and thus sent the case back to the district court for trial.

Source: ©2005 Pearson Education, Inc., publishing as Pearson Prentice Hall. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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