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Baker v. Carr

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Significance: The Supreme Court ruled for the first time that legislative malapportionment was not a political question but an issue that could be considered by the courts.


Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., wrote the 6-2 majority opinion in this landmark case, ignoring warnings from Justices Felix Frankfurter and John Marshal Harlan II that the Supreme Court was entering a political thicket with this decision. The Court overturned Colegrove v. Green (1946) and ruled that the federal courts had jurisdiction to hear legislative reapportionment cases regarding states such as Tennessee, which had not reapportioned its legislative seats in more than sixty years. Baker did not actually reapportion any districts, nor did it set forth standards for states to follow. The one person, one vote principle, not enunciated until Gray v. Sanders (1963), was not applied to congressional redistricting until Wesberry v. Sanders (1964) nor applied to all legislative houses including the state senates until Reynolds v. Sims (1964). These cases opened the door to a flood of litigation over the next two decades as citizens in urban areas filed suit to force rural-dominated legislatures to reapportion themselves. The long-term impact of this decision was to correct a situation that apparently could not be corrected by the ordinary political process. As more Americans moved to urban areas, rural areas became underpopulated and overrepresented in state legislatures. In most states, rural domination was so great that the legislature had a majority of rural representatives who blocked any realistic chances of reapportioning their states. Because state legislatures also draw congressional district lines, this malapportionment extended to the national level. Reapportionment had historically been regarded as a political question beyond the reach of the federal courts, but this decision reversed that legal standard.