Baker v. Carr: Supreme Court Case, Arguments, Impact

Judging Reapportionment

A closeup of a map showing Tennessee

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Baker v. Carr (1962) was a landmark case concerning re-apportionment and redistricting. The United States Supreme Court ruled that federal courts could hear and rule on cases in which plaintiffs allege that re-apportionment plans violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Fast Facts: Baker v. Carr

  • Case Argued: April 19-20, 1961; re-argued October 9, 1961
  • Decision Issued: March 26, 1962
  • Petitioner: Charles W. Baker on behalf of multiple Tennessee voters
  • Respondent: Joe Carr, Secretary of State for Tennessee
  • Key Questions: Can federal courts hear and rule on cases related to state apportionment?
  • Majority: Justices Brennan, Stewart, Warren, Black, Douglas, Clark
  • Dissenting: Justices Frankfurter and Harlan
  • Ruling: Plaintiffs may argue that redistricting has violated the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause in federal court.

Facts of the Case

In 1901, the Tennessee General Assembly passed an apportionment act. The statute required Tennessee to update its apportionment of senators and representatives every ten years, based on population recorded by the federal census. The statute offered a way for Tennessee to handle apportionment of senators and representatives as its population shifted and grew.

Between 1901 and 1960, the population of Tennessee grew significantly. In 1901, Tennessee's population totaled just 2,020,616 and only 487,380 residents were eligible to vote. In 1960, the federal census revealed that the state's population had grown by more than a million, totaling 3,567,089, and its voting population had swelled to 2,092,891.

Despite population growth, the Tennessee General Assembly failed to enact a re-apportionment plan. Each time redistricting plans were drawn up in accordance with the federal census and put to a vote, they failed to get enough votes to pass.

In 1961, Charles W. Baker and a number of Tennessee voters sued the state of Tennessee for failing to update the apportionment plan to reflect the state's growth in population. The failure gave significant power to voters in rural areas, and took away power from voters in suburban and urban parts of the state. Baker's vote counted for less than the vote of someone living in a rural area, he alleged, a violation the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Tennessee had acted "arbitrarily" and "capriciously" in not following redistricting standards, he claimed.

A district court panel declined to hear the case, finding that it could not rule on "political" matters like redistricting and apportionment. The Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Constitutional Questions

Can the Supreme Court rule on a case regarding apportionment? The Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause says that a state cannot "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." Did Tennessee deny Baker equal protection when it failed to update its apportionment plan?

Arguments

Baker argued that re-apportionment was vital to the equality in the democratic process. Tennessee had undergone a population shift in which thousands of people flooded urban areas, abandoning the rural countryside. Despite a swell in population, certain urban areas were still receiving the same amount of representatives as rural areas with far less voters. Baker, like many other residents in urban areas of Tennessee, found himself in a situation where his vote counted for less due to a lack of representation, his attorneys argued. The only remedy to his lack of representation would be a federal court order to require re-apportionment, the attorneys told the Court.

Attorneys on behalf of the state argued that the Supreme Court lacked grounds and jurisdiction to even hear the case. In a 1946 case, Colegrove v. Green, the Supreme Court had ruled that apportionment should be left to the states to decide, the attorneys argued. In that case, the Court had declared re-apportionment a "political thicket." How to redraw districts was a "political" question rather than a judicial one, and should be up to state governments, the attorneys explained.

Majority Opinion

Justice William Brennan delivered the 6-2 decision. Justice Whittaker recused himself.

Justice Brennan focused the decision on whether redistricting could be a "justiciable" question, meaning whether federal courts could hear a case regarding apportionment of state representatives.

Justice Brennan wrote that the federal courts have subject matter jurisdiction in relation to apportionment. This means that federal courts have the authority to hear apportionment cases when plaintiffs allege deprivation of fundamental liberties. Next, Justice Brennan found that Baker and his fellow plaintiffs had standing to sue because, the voters were alleging "facts showing disadvantage to themselves as individuals."

Justice Brennan drew a line between "political questions" and "justiciable questions" by defining the former. He developed a six prong test to guide the Court in future decisions regarding whether or not a question is "political." A question is "political" if:

  1. the Constitution has already given decision making power to a specific political department.
  2. there is no apparent judicial remedy or set of judicial standards for resolving the issue
  3. a decision cannot be made without first making a policy determination that is not judicial in nature
  4. the Court cannot undertake an "independent resolution" without "expressing lack of the respect due coordinate branches of government"
  5. there is an unusual need for not questioning a political decision that has already been made
  6. "the potentiality of embarrassment" from multiple decisions being issued by various departments regarding one question

Following these six prongs, Justice Warren concluded that alleged voting inequalities could not be characterized as "political questions" simply because they asserted wrongdoing in the political process. Federal courts could create “discoverable and manageable standards” for granting relief in equal protection cases.

Dissenting Opinion

Justice Felix Frankfurter dissented, joined by Justice John Marshall Harlan. The Court's decision represented a clear deviation from a long history of judicial restraint, he argued. The decision allowed the Supreme Court and other federal district courts to enter the political realm, violating the intent of separation of powers, Justice Frankfurter wrote.

Justice Frankfurter added:

The notion that representation proportioned to the geographic spread of population is so universally accepted as a necessary element of equality between man and man that it must be taken to be the standard of a political equality preserved by the Fourteenth Amendment... is, to put it bluntly, not true.

Impact

Chief Justice Earl Warren called Baker v. Carr the most important case of his tenure on the Supreme Court. It opened the door to numerous historic cases in which the Supreme Court tackled questions of voting equality and representation in government. Within seven weeks of the decision, lawsuits had been filed in 22 states asking for relief in terms of unequal apportionment standards. It took only two years for 26 states to ratify new apportionment plans with respect to population counts. Some of those new plans were guided by federal court decisions.

Sources

  • Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186 (1962).
  • Atleson, James B. “The Aftermath of Baker v. Carr. An Adventure in Judicial Experimentation.” California Law Review, vol. 51, no. 3, 1963, p. 535., doi:10.2307/3478969.
  • “Baker v. Carr (1962).” The Rose Institute of State and Local Government, http://roseinstitute.org/redistricting/baker/.