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Colegrove v. Green

Court Declares Apportionment A "political Question"

Writing for a divided and diminished Court (Chief Justice Stone had recently died, and Justice Jackson was on leave), Justice Frankfurter upheld the decision of the district court. The question of how election boundaries within a state are drawn is not, he declared, one for the courts to decide.

We are of the opinion that the petitioners ask of this Court what is beyond its competence to grant. This is one of those demands on judicial power which cannot be met by verbal fencing about "jurisdiction." It must be resolved by considerations on the basis of which this Court, from time to time, has refused to intervene in controversies. It has refused to do so because due regard for the effective working of our Government revealed this issue to be of a peculiarly political nature and therefore not meet for judicial determination.
The reason apportionment is a "political question," Frankfurter went on to say, is that it "concerns matters that bring courts into immediate and active relations with party contests."

The so-called "political question" doctrine which permits federal courts to avoid hearing certain cases has its roots in the principle of separation of powers. Certain issues, according to Supreme Court tradition, have been thought to belong to the province of the elected branches of government, the executive and the legislative. However, courts can--and do--hear cases involving political issues, and the political question doctrine is sometimes simply cited as justification for avoiding certain awkward issues that might, in fact, be better left to Congress or the president to decide.

Malapportionment, the unequal distribution of elected representatives, was one such issue. But when more than a decade passed after Colegrove without state legislatures taking any action, the Supreme Court finally felt obliged to declare, in the landmark case of Baker v. Carr (1962), that apportionment could in fact be addressed by the judiciary. The rationale for doing so was found in the Fourteenth Amendment, which provides that citizens of individual states are due equal protection under federal laws. Failure to reapportion electoral districts since 1901 in a state that had seen a considerable population shift from rural to urban areas in the ensuing decades plainly prevented individuals in overpopulated districts from being properly represented. After Baker v. Carr, challenges to outmoded election boundaries could be brought directly into federal court. Justice Frankfurter remained philosophically opposed to what he saw as lawmaking by the courts, and in Baker v. Carr he wrote a dissent denouncing the Court's change of course.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1941 to 1953Colegrove v. Green - Significance, Court Declares Apportionment A "political Question", Further Readings