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Photo of African Americans marching for equal voting rights.
In Reynolds v. Sims, the Court held that state legislative districts must be equal in population. Prior to the decision, urbanization had caused many rural districts to be overrepresented in several states. Above, African Americans march for equal voting rights.

Photo by Francis Miller; Reproduction courtesy of TIME & LIFE Pictures
Reynolds v. Sims (1964)

In Reynolds v. Sims (1964), the Supreme Court ruled that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires that the legislative districts across states be equal in population. The case began in 1962, when the Supreme Court ruled that it had authority to review cases brought by individuals harmed by legislative apportionment or redistricting (see Baker v. Carr). With this ruling, more than 30 lawsuits were filed against states claiming legislative apportionment schemes to be unconstitutional. One case challenged the apportionment scheme of Alabama. Alabama's legislative districts still reflected population levels from the 1900 census. The plaintiffs argued that since 1900, urban districts had grown precipitously, thus diluting the votes of urban residents. Because votes from some districts thus carried more weight than votes from others, the plaintiffs claimed, Alabama's apportionment scheme violated the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause. A lower federal court agreed, and Alabama appealed to the Supreme Court in 1964.

In a decision written by Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Court ruled that Alabama's apportionment scheme did violate the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause. Because "the right to exercise franchise in a free and unimpaired manner is preservative of other basic civil and political rights," the Court argued, the right to vote is a "fundamental right" strictly protected by the Constitution. And because the United States is a democracy based on equal representation of the people in government, an apportionment scheme that gives more weight to some votes than others violates the Equal Protection Clause, which forbids a state from denying "to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." Because the right to vote is so fundamental to securing protection from the laws, the clause inevitably guarantees "the opportunity for equal participation by all voters in the election of state legislatures."

The Court acknowledged that it is practically impossible for a state to create legislative districts that are precisely even in population. The Court also conceded that states, in drawing their districts, may have some legitimate interests that incidentally create minor population disparities. Nonetheless, geographic concerns alone can never justify creating districts that are unequal in population. Chief Justice Warren wrote that "legislators represent people, not trees or acres" and "legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests." In short, the Court ruled that population must always be the "controlling consideration" in state redistricting. Alabama was thus ordered to reapportion its legislative districts using this calculus, making them "as nearly equal of population as is practicable."

Reynolds v. Sims created much controversy. In response to the decision, U.S. Senator Everett Dirkson of Illinois proposed a constitutional amendment that would expressly permit unequal legislative districts. The senator argued that "the forces of our national life are not brought to bear on public questions solely in proportion to the weight of numbers." To hold otherwise, he claimed, would mean that "six million citizens of the Chicago area would hold sway in the Illinois Legislature without consideration of the problems of their four million fellows who are scattered in 100 other counties." Dirkson's proposed amendment was ultimately defeated.

The Reynolds decision, which Warren considered to be his finest, ultimately prevailed over Senator Dirkson's and others' arguments that the Supreme Court has no business meddling in "political" state apportionment schemes. Respect for state sovereignty must bow to the republic's most basic principles, liberty and equality, and the right to an equal vote is the necessary means to securing both.

Alex McBride is a third year law student at Tulane Law School in New Orleans. He is articles editor on the TULANE LAW REVIEW and the 2005 recipient of the Ray Forrester Award in Constitutional Law. In 2007, Alex will be clerking with Judge Susan Braden on the United States Court of Federal Claims in Washington.

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