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Baker v.

Carr (1962)

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.