Wesberry v. Sanders

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376 U.S. 1 (1964), argued 18–19 Nov. 1963, decided 17 Feb. 1964 by vote of 7 to 2; Black for the Court, Clark concurring in part and dissenting in part, Harlan in dissent. This is the second of the “reapportionment decisions” of the 1960s, which established that federal courts have jurisdiction to enforce the constitutional requirement that representation in governmental bodies be based on equal-population districts. The first, Baker v. Carr (1962), was not a ruling on the merits but a holding that the question of the apportionment of a state legislature is a justiciable question.

Wesberry dealt with the apportionment of congressional districts in Georgia, which were challenged under Article I, section 2, which provides that “The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several states,” and the part of section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment that provides that “Representatives shall be apportioned among the several states according to their respective numbers.”

In Baker, Justice William J. Brennan had argued for the Court that since the question of whether the Tennessee legislature's reapportionment of its own legislative districts did not present the Court with the possibility of a conflict with a coordinate branch of the national government, the Court could handle the matter as a justiciable issue. In Wesberry, however, the Court was faced with such a conflict. Congress had made a deliberate decision in 1929, reaffirmed after each decennial apportionment, to drop any requirement that state legislatures create congressional districts that were compact, contiguous, and equal in population.

Wesberry involved a challenge by voters in Georgia's Fifth Congressional District, the population of which was two to three times greater than that of other congressional districts. Claiming that their vote had been debased by the Georgia legislature's failure to realign congressional districts on a population basis, they brought a class action asking that the apportionment statute be declared unconstitutional and that the Georgia officials be enjoined from conducting elections under it. A three-judge district court, although recognizing a constitutional issue, dismissed the complaint for “want of equity,” primarily relying on Justice Felix Frankfurter's opinion in Colegrove v. Green (1946).

Justice Hugo Black promptly disposed of the political question issue on the grounds that the “right to vote is too important in our free society to be stripped of judicial protection” (p. 7). He also completely ignored prior actions of Congress and construed Article I, section 2, as commanding that “as nearly as is practicable one man's vote in a congressional election is to be worth as much as another's.” Hence, “[w]hile it may not be possible to draw congressional districts with mathematical precision,” the “Constitution's plain objective” is that “equal representation for equal numbers of people” is a fundamental goal for the House of Representatives (p. 18).

Justice John M. Harlan, in dissent, rather persuasively pointed out that such a conclusion could hardly be drawn from the intent of the framers—as Black had argued—or from Congressional actions that had, rather pointedly in the 1929 reapportionment act, deleted the requirement of five previous acts that congressional districts be equal in population.


Subjects: Law.

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