Baker v. Carr

From Academic Kids

Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186 (1962) was a Supreme Court of the United States case which decided that reapportionment issues (attempts to change the way voting districts are delineated) present justiciable questions, thus enabling federal courts to intervene in and to decide reapportionment cases. The defendants unsuccessfully argued that reapportionment of legislative districts is a "political question," and hence not a question which may be resolved by federal courts.



Plaintiff Baker was a Republican who lived in Shelby County, Tennessee, the county in which Memphis is located. His complaint was that though the Tennessee State Constitution required that legislative districts be redrawn every ten years according to the federal census to provide for districts of substantially equal population, Tennessee had not in fact redistricted since the census of 1900. By the time of Baker's lawsuit, his district in Shelby County had about ten times as many residents as some of the rural districts. His argument was that this discrepancy was causing him to fail to receive the "equal protection under the laws" required by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Defendant Joe Carr was sued in his position as Secretary of State for Tennessee. Carr was not the person who set the district lines – the state legislature had done that – but was sued ex officio as the person who was ultimately responsible for the conduct of elections in the state and for the publication of district maps. The State of Tennessee argued that legislative districts were essentially political, not judicial, questions, as had been held by a plurality opinion of the Court in Colegrove v. Green (1946), wherein Justice Felix Frankfurter declared that, "Courts ought not to enter this political thicket." Frankfurter believed that relief for legislative malapportionment had to be attained through the political process.

The Court's Decision

The decision of Baker v. Carr was one of the most wrenching in the Court's history. The case had to be put over for reargument because in conference no clear majority emerged for either side of the case. Justice Charles Evans Whittaker was so torn over the case that he eventually had to recuse himself, and the arduous decisional process in Baker is often blamed for Whittaker's subsequent health problems which forced him to resign from the Court.

The opinion was finally handed down in March 1962, nearly a year after it was initially argued. The Court split 6 to 2 in ruling that Baker's case was judiciable, producing, in addition to the opinion of the Court by Justice William J. Brennan, three concurring opinions and two dissenting opinions. Brennan reformulated the political question doctrine, proposing a six-part test for determining which questions were "political" in nature. Cases which are political in nature are marked by:

1. "Textually demonstrable constitutional commitment of the issue to a coordinate political department;" as an example of this, Brennan cited issues of foreign affairs and executive war powers, arguing that cases involving such matters would be "political questions"
2. "A lack of judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving it;"
3. "The impossibility of deciding without an initial policy determination of a kind clearly for nonjudicial discretion;"
4. "The impossibility of a court's undertaking independent resolution without expressing lack of the respect due coordinate branches of government;"
5. "An unusual need for unquestioning adherence to a political decision already made;"
6. "The potentiality of embarrassment from multifarious pronouncements by various departments on one question."

Justice Tom C. Clark switched his vote at the last minute to a concurrence on the substance of Baker's claims, which would have enabled a majority which could have granted relief for Baker, but instead the Supreme Court remanded the case to the District Court. Frankfurter, joined by John Marshall Harlan II, dissented vigorously and at length, arguing that the Court had shunted aside history and judicial restraint and violated the separation of powers between legislatures and Courts.


Having declared reapportionment issues justiciable in Baker, the court laid out a new test for evaluating such claims in Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533 (1964). In that case, the Court formulated the famous "one-man, one-vote" standard for legislative districting, holding that each individual had to be weighted equally in legislative apportionment. The Court held that in states with bi-cameral legislatures both houses had to be apportioned on this standard, voiding the provision of the Arizona constitution which had provided for two state senators from each county, the California constitution providing for one senator from each county, and similar provisions elsewhere. (Even the Tennessee constitution, enforcement of which was the original basis for the case, has a provision which prevented counties from being "split" and portions of a county being attached to other counties or parts of counties in the creation of a district which was overriden, and today counties are frequently split among districts in forming Tennessee State Senate districts.) "One-man, one-vote" was applied to congressional districts in 1965's Wesberry v. Sanders.

Baker v. Carr and subsequent cases fundamentally altered the nature of political representation in America, requiring not just Tennessee but nearly every state to redistrict during the 1960s, often several times. After he left the Court, Chief Justice Earl Warren called the Baker v. Carr line of cases the most important in his tenure as Chief Justice.

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