Baker v. Carr (1962) is a landmark case credited with legally establishing the noted principle of “one person, one vote” and with condemning legislative malapportionment. “Malapportionment” refers to the underrepresentation of the population that arises when one legislative district is considerably more populated than another. As some states allocated senators along county lines, urban populations were typically underrepresented in state legislatures. For instance, in New Jersey in 1962, one rural senator represented 49,000 residents, while one urban senator represented 924,000 residents.
However, the setting that catapulted this issue to the Supreme Court’s doorstep came about in Tennessee. The disparity in the House district population ranged from 2,340 citizens in one county to 42,298 citizens in another county. Mr. Charles Baker and others filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court claiming that the malapportionment of the state legislature violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The federal district court applied the precedent from Colegrove v. Green (1946) and dismissed the complaint, finding that it was powerless to make a determination of the issue, as it was a political question to be resolved by the political branches of the government.
Baker appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided to rule on the case, noting that the Political Question Doctrine is “a tool of maintenance of governmental order” and should not be used as a constraint upon the judiciary to examine the legislature’s actions. After reargument, the Court rendered a 6–2 decision in favor of Baker. Justice Brennan wrote the majority opinion, establishing that the plaintiffs had legal standing to challenge the state apportionment statutes. The Political Question Doctrine had been redefined, thus opening the window for “judicial resolution of reapportionment cases.” However, this decision was most significant because it established that states should possess population equality across legislative districts, thus protecting the concept of one person, one vote. The Baker decision also motivated a sweeping reapportionment movement across the nation that culminated in the redrawing of legislative districts in every state and greater representation for both urban areas and African Americans.
Stephen Ansolabehere and Samuel Issacharoff, “Baker v. Carr in Context: 1946–1964,” in Constitutional Law Stories, ed; Ann O’M. Bowman and Richard C. Kearney, State and Local Government, 3rd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996); Guy-Uriel E. Charles, “Constitutional Pluralism and Democratic Politics: Reflections on the Interpretive Approach of Baker v. Carr,” North Carolina Law Review 80, no. 4 (2002): 1103–64; Michael C. Dorf (New York: Foundation Press, 2003): 297–323; Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, 254 (1962); Lee Epstein and Thomas G. Walker, Constitutional Law for a Changing America: Institutional Powers and Constraints, 4th ed. (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 2001); and Stanley H. Friedelbaum, “Baker v. Carr: The New Doctrine of Judicial Intervention and Its Implications for American Federalism,” University of Chicago Law Review 29, no. 4 (1962): 673-704; Franklin Sacha, “Excising Federalism: The Consequences of Baker v. Carr beyond the Electoral Arena,” Virginia Law Review 101, no. 8 (2015): 2263–2300.