Chief Justice EARL WARREN considered Baker v. Carr the most important case decided by the Warren Court. Its holding was cryptic: "the right [to equal districts in the Tennessee legislature] is within the reach of judicial protection under the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT." Many people expected REAPPORTIONMENT under Baker to vitalize American democracy. Others feared that it would snare the judiciary in unresolvable questions of political REPRESENTATION, outside the proper bounds of its constitutional authority.
Tennesseans, like others, had moved from countryside to urban and suburban districts, but no redistricting had taken place since 1901. Supporters of reapportionment claimed that the resulting swollen districts made "second-class citizens" of city voters; they blamed "malapportionment" for urban woes and legislative apathy. Finding little legislative sympathy for these claims, they turned to the courts.
But they had several hurdles to clear. The framers of the Fourteenth Amendment had repeatedly denied that it protected the right to vote. Perhaps it protected rights of representation, but the Court had found such rights too cloudy, too sensitive, and too "political" to settle judicially. (See POLITICAL QUESTIONS.)
The central hurdle was the "standards problem" expounded by Justice FELIX FRANKFURTER in COLEGROVE V. GREEN (1946) and in his Baker dissent. How could the Court tell lower courts and legislatures the difference between good representation and bad, lacking clear constitutional guidance? The Constitution was a complex blend of competing and countervailing principles, not a mandate for equal districts. "What is actually asked of the Court ? is to choose among competing bases of representation?ultimately, really, among competing theories of philosophy?in order to establish an appropriate form of government for ? the states.?" Frankfurter accused the Court of sending the lower courts into a "mathematical quagmire."
Writing for the majority, Justice WILLIAM J. BRENNAN argued that the Colegrove court had not found apportionment a political question but had declined to hear it using EQUITY discretion. But he did not answer Frankfurter's challenge to lay down workable standards, nor Justice JOHN MARSHALL HARLAN'S objection, later reasserted in REYNOLDS V. SIMS (1964), that nothing in the Constitution conveyed a right to equal districts. Brennan merely claimed that "judicial standards under the EQUAL PROTECTION...