Reynolds v. Sims 377 U.S. 533 (1964)

Author:Kenneth L. Karst

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Once the Supreme Court declared in BAKER V. CARR (1962) that legislative districting presented a justiciable controversy, lawsuits were filed in more than thirty states challenging existing legislative apportionments. Six of these cases were decided by the Court on the same day, and the Court held all six states' apportionments unconstitutional. The main opinion was written in Reynolds v. Sims, the Alabama case; all six opinions of the Court were by Chief

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Justice EARL WARREN, who believed until his death that Reynolds was the most important decision rendered by the Court during his tenure. The vote in four of the cases was 8?1, and in the other two, 6?3. Justice JOHN MARSHALL HARLAN dissented in all six cases, joined in two of them by Justices POTTER STEWART and TOM C. CLARK.

Baker v. Carr had been a response to decades of stalemate in the political process. Population shifts from rural areas to cities in the twentieth century had not been accompanied by changes in the electoral maps of most states. As a result, vast disparities in district populations permitted control of both houses of the typical state legislature to be dictated by rural voters. In Alabama, for example, Mobile County, with a population over 300,000, had three seats in the lower house, while Bullock County's two representatives served a population under 14,000. If JUDICIAL REVIEW normally defers to majoritarian democracy, here the premise for that deference was lacking; legislators favored by these apportionment inequalities were not apt to remedy them.

Baker had rested decision not on the GUARANTEE CLAUSE but on the EQUAL PROTECTION clause of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT. In the early 1960s, the Court had heightened the STANDARD OF REVIEW in equal protection cases only when RACIAL DISCRIMINATION was present; for other cases, the relaxed RATIONAL BASIS standard prevailed. Some Justices in the Baker majority had based their concurrence on the total arbitrariness of the Tennessee apportionment scheme there challenged. Justice WILLIAM O. DOUGLAS, concurring, had even said, "Universal equality is not the test; there is room for weighting." The Baker dissenters and academic critics had argued that the apportionment problem was unsuitable for judicial determination because courts would be unable to devise principled standards to test the reasonableness of the "weighting" Justice Douglas had anticipated; the problem belonged, they had said, in the category of POLITICAL QUESTIONS. The Baker majority had...

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