Baker v. Carr
369 U.S. 186 (1962)

  • Baker was a Republican who lived in Shelby County, Tennessee. He sued, claiming that although 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 had about ten times as many residents as some of the rural districts. Baker argued that this discrepancy was causing him to fail to receive equal protection as required by the 14th Amendment.
    • The members of the Tennessee Legislature, having mainly been elected by districts that would lose power in a redistricting, had no desire to bother with reapportionment. If it is a political issue, it’s one that the political process can’t really fix by itself.
  • Tennessee argued that legislative districts were essentially political, not judicial, questions, so the Court shouldn’t hear the case.
    • Tennessee pointed to Colegrove v. Green (328 U.S. 549 (1946)), which declared that, “Courts ought not to enter this political thicket.”
    • Tennessee argued that reapportionment of legislative districts is a political question, and hence not a question which may be resolved by Federal Courts
  • The US Supreme Court eventually ruled that Baker’s case was justiciable, but the decision was very split.
    • The case had to be put over for reargument because in conference no clear majority emerged for either side of the case.
    • The US Supreme Court found that reapportionment was covered by the 14th Amendment.
    • The Court 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:
      • Textually demonstrable constitutional commitment of the issue to a coordinate political department.
        • For example, issues of foreign affairs and executive war powers.
      • A lack of judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving it.
      • The impossibility of deciding without an initial policy determination of a kind clearly for nonjudicial discretion.
      • The impossibility of a court’s undertaking independent resolution without expressing lack of the respect due coordinate branches of government.
      • An unusual need for unquestioning adherence to a political decision already made.
      • The potentiality of embarrassment from multifarious pronouncements by various departments on one question.
  • In a dissent, it was argued that the Court had shunted aside history and judicial restraint and violated the separation of powers between legislatures and Courts.
    • The dissent claimed that there are several types of cases that the judiciary did not traditionally decide:
      • Cases concerning war or foreign affairs.
      • Cases concerning the structure and organization of political institutions of the US.
      • Cases involving abstract questions of political power, sovereignty and government.
  • This case, 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.
  • Later, in Reynolds v. Sims (377 U.S. 533 (1964)), the US Supreme Court laid out a new test for evaluating reapportionment claims.
    • 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.
  • Up until this case, the US Supreme Court had found that issues involving reapportionment were not judicable. The difference is that the cases until this point had been based on the Guarantee Clause of the Constitution, which guaranteed that the States would have a “republican form of government.” The courts consistently said that this was a political question because it was up to the ‘United States’ to guarantee, not the courts. This case was different because Baker was arguing on Equal Protection Clause grounds. The Court found that that was a judicable issue.
  • The political question doctrine was established in Marbury v. Madison and says Federal Courts should decline to rule in cases where:
    • The U.S. Constitution has committed decision-making on this subject to another branch of the federal government;
    • There are inadequate standards for the court to apply; or
    • The court feels it is prudent not to interfere.