Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186; 82 S. Ct. 691; 7 L. Ed. 2d 663 (1962)

Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186; 82 S. Ct. 691; 7 L. Ed. 2d 663 (1962)

Facts—Voters brought this civil action alleging that the continuing apportionment of the Tennessee General Assembly by means of a 1901 statute debased the votes of the plaintiffs and denied them equal protection of the law under the Fourteenth Amendment. The constitution of Tennessee mandated a decennial reapportionment but all proposals for such since 1901 had failed to pass the General Assembly. In this period the relative standings of Tennessee counties in terms of qualified voters had changed significantly. The appellants asserted that the voters in certain counties have been placed in a position of constitutionally unjustified inequality vis-à-vis voters in irrationally favored counties. The appellants claimed injunctive and declaratory judgment relief. The plaintiffs alleged that any change in the apportionment that would be brought about by legislative action would be difficult or impossible.


(a) Do federal courts have jurisdiction of cases involving state legislative reapportionment?

(b) Does the case state a justiciable cause of action?


(a) Yes; (b) Yes.

ReasonsJ. Brennan (6–2). This action arises under the Constitution according to Article III, Section 2 since the complaint alleges an apportionment that deprives the appellants of the equal protection of the laws in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment (previous cases involving “political questions” generally alleged that claims under the “republican form of government” clause in Article IV were nonjusticiable). The claim is not “ so attenuated and unsubstantial as to be absolutely devoid of merit.” Moreover, “the appellants do have standing to maintain this suit.” Voters who allege facts showing disadvantage to themselves as individuals have standing to sue. Finally, the matter presented is justiciable. The mere fact that a suit seeks protection of a political right does not mean that it presents a nonjusticiable political question. The nonjusticiability of a political question is primarily a function of the separation of powers, the relationship between the judiciary and the coordinate branches of the federal government, and not the federal judiciary’s relationship to the states.

Brennan outlined six criteria for political questions:

[1] a textually demonstrable constitutional commitment of the issue to a coordinate political department; or

[2] a lack of judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving it; or

[3] the impossibility of decid- ing without an initial policy determination of a kind clearly for nonjudicial discretion; or

[4] the impossibility of a court’s undertaking independent resolution without expressing lack of the respect due coordinate branches of government; or

[5] an unusual need for unquestioning adherence to a political decision already made; or

[6] the potentiality of embarrassment from multifarious pronouncements by various departments on one question.

None of these criteria came into play in this particular case.

J. Douglas’s concurrence focused on the fact that Tennessee was weighing the votes of some individuals more heavily than others. J. Clark could find no “rational basis” for Tennessee’s apportionment system or any way for the voters to change it—the state had no initiative or referendum mechanism. J. Stewart wanted to keep the focus on the Court’s jurisdiction and the justicia- bility of the subject matter.

In separate and stinging dissents, J. Frankfurter and J. Harlan warned about intervening in such a “political thicket.” Frankfurter argued that the decision unduly enthroned the judiciary, while Harlan could find no historical evidence that the Fourteenth Amendment was designed to have the meaning the majority had attributed to it.

NoteBaker is a seminal case. In reversing Colegrove v. Green, 328 U.S. 549 (1946) the Supreme Court opened the federal courts to challenges of apportionment of legislative districts.

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