394 U.S. 526 (1969), argued 13 Jan. 1969, decided 7 April 1969 by vote of 6 to 3; Brennan for the Court, Fortas concurring, Harlan, Stewart, and White in dissent. In Kirkpatrick the Supreme Court affirmed a federal district court's rejection of Missouri's 1967 Congressional Redistricting Act. In the companion case of Wells v. Rockefeller the Court reversed a decision sustaining the validity of New York's 1968 congressional redistricting statute.
Kirkpatrick significantly narrowed the range of permissible population deviations among districts permitted by the 1964 reapportionment. Moreover, it reflected a split within the Warren Court over the meaning, in Wesberry v. Sanders (1964), of the phrase “as nearly equal as practicable” (p. 21). Missouri's districts entailed 1960 population disparities ranging from 3.13 percent above to 2.83 percent below a statewide average. For the Court, Justice William Brennan insisted, “The ‘as nearly as practicable’ standard requires that the State make a good-faith effort to achieve precise mathematical equality…. Unless population variances among congressional districts are shown to have resulted despite such effort, the State must justify each variance, no matter how small” (pp. 530–531).
This standard drew strong criticism from four justices. Justice Abe Fortas concurred in the result but decried the majority's quest for an illusory mathematical precision based on inexact, obsolete census data. Separate dissents by Justices John M. Harlan and Byron White additionally faulted judicial intrusion into legislative common sense while minimizing traditional constraints of local boundaries on gerrymandering.
Although Kirkpatrick and Wells were both congressional redistricting cases, the Court's broad language left an impression that state legislative districting might be similarly restricted. That question was resolved in several 1973 cases that reiterated the more flexible phraseology of Reynolds v. Sims (1964) for state legislatures (Mahan v. Howell, 1973) while maintaining Kirkpatrick's narrower approach for congressional constituencies (White v. Weiser, 1973).
A decade later, New Jersey's congressional districting, with a total population variance range of less than 0.7 percent, was invalidated in Karcher v. Daggett (1983). Although that holding was based on the Kirkpatrick precedent, five members of the Court (four dissenters plus Justice John Paul Stevens, who concurred) questioned Brennan's quest for population precision, claiming that partisan gerrymandering was a greater threat to fair representation than were small population variances.
Gordon E. Baker