Gomillion v. Lightfoot

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364 U.S. 339 (1960), argued 18–19 Oct. 1960, decided 14 Nov. 1960 by vote of 9 to 0; Frankfurter for the Court, Douglas and Whittaker concurring. Black voters charged that an Alabama law, changing the city boundaries of Tuskegee in such a way as to exclude all but four or five black voters without eliminating any white ones, was unconstitutional. A federal district court dismissed the complaint and the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed unanimously.

That the Supreme Court would in 1960 strike down this obvious race-based denial of constitutional rights is not so unusual. What is interesting is that Justice Felix Frankfurter had to find a way to skirt his own Colegrove v. Green (1946) holding that questions relating to legislative apportionment are nonjusticiable “political questions” and thus outside the scope of federal judicial power. Frankfurter felt strongly that federal courts should not enter the reapportionment battlefield, but he was equally passionately against racial discrimination. To reconcile these two values, he keyed his Gomillion decision to Fifteenth Amendment rather than to Fourteenth Amendment grounds. “The appellants in Colegrove” he wrote, “complained only of a dilution of the strength of their votes as a result of legislative inaction over the course of many years. The petitioners here complain that affirmative legislative action deprives them of their votes …. When a legislature thus singles out a readily isolated segment of a racial minority for special discriminatory treatment, it violates the Fifteenth Amendment …. [A]part from all else, these considerations lift this controversy out of the so-called ‘political’ arena and into the conventional sphere of constitutional litigation” (pp. 346, 347).

Justices William O. Douglas and Charles Whittaker, concurring separately, would have struck down Alabama's action as a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Gomillion's opening of federal courts to charges of racial gerrymandering reflected no softening in Frankfurter's views that courts should stay out of legislative apportionment issues, but it did encourage urban interests to keep pressing federal courts for relief. A few days after Gomillion, the Court noted probable jurisdiction in Baker v. Carr (1962), which did directly raise the justiciability of reapportionment cases.

J. W. Peltason

Subjects: Law.

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