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Wesberry v. Sanders

Significance

Wesberry was the first real test of the "reapportionment revolution" set in motion by Baker v. Carr (1962), in which the Supreme Court held that federal courts could rule on reapportionment questions.

James P. Wesberry, Jr., was one of the citizens of Fulton County, Georgia, who filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia challenging the state apportionment law. Georgia's Fifth Congressional District, which included Fulton County, was one of five voting districts created by a 1931 Georgia statute. By 1960, the population of the fifth district had grown to such an extent that its single congressman had to represent two to three times as many voters as did congressmen in the other Georgia districts. Wesberry based his claim on Article I, section 2, of the U.S. Constitution, which states that, "The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States," and on section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment, which reads in part: "Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers . . . "

In 1962, the Supreme Court began what became known as the "reapportionment revolution" with its decision in Baker v. Carr. Baker did not address a specific situation of malapportionment, but instead upheld the general principle that federal courts have the power to order the reconfiguration of state election districts. The next significant reapportionment case was Gray v. Sanders (1963), which established the principle of "one person, one vote." At the district court level, however, a three-judge panel hearing Wesberry's case relied upon an earlier U.S. Supreme Court precedent, Colegrove v. Green (1946), which held reapportionment to be a "political question" outside court jurisdiction. After the district court dismissed their complaint, Wesberry and the other members of his class action suit appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Holds That Reapportionment Is Not a "Political Question"

Writing for the Court, Justice Black dispensed with the political question issue immediately, agreeing with the appellants that Article I, section 2, properly interpreted, mandated the end of the Georgia apportionment statute:

The right to vote is too important in our free society to be stripped of judicial protection . . . the 1931 Georgia apportionment grossly discriminates against voters in the Fifth Congressional District . . . [it] thus contracts the value of some votes and expands that of others. If the Federal Constitution intends that when qualified voters elect members of Congress each vote be given as much weight as any other, then this statute cannot stand. We hold that . . . the command of Art. I, [section] 2, that Representatives be chosen "by the People of the several States," means that as nearly as is practicable one man's vote in a congressional election is to be worth as much as another's.

Justice Black indicated that exact equality of population in each district was not entirely possible. Soon, however, computers made it possible to draw congressional districts with mathematical precision, and in Kirkpatrick v. Preisler the Court made that the standard for apportioning congressional election districts.

Six cases, handed down the same day and known collectively as the Reapportionment Cases, did for state electoral districts what Wesberry did for federal congressional districts. The best known of these cases is Reynolds v. Sims (1964). Like Wesberry, the Reapportionment Cases grew out of the Supreme Court's decision in Baker; if anything, they had an even more profound impact on the American electoral landscape, as they rendered nearly every state legislature unconstitutional. In Mahan v. Howell. (1973), however, it became clear that the Court would hold state legislatures to a less precise standard than the mathematical equality required of congressional districts.

Related Cases

  • Colegrove v. Green, 328 U.S. 549 (1946).
  • Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186 (1962).
  • Gray v. Sanders, 372 U.S. 368 (1963).
  • Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533 (1964).
  • Mahan, Secretary, State Board of Elections, et al. v. Howell, et al., 410 U.S. 315 (1973).

One Vote One Person

The concept that each individual's vote will carry the same weight as another was established by the U.S. Constitution, and was reiterated in Baker v. Carr (1962) and Wesberry v. Sanders (1964). Historically, the American colonists had disagreed with England's imposition of taxation without actual representation. They argued that "virtual" representation of the colonists in Parliament was inadequate.

In framing the Constitution, the authors intended to avoid the problem of representation in elections for Congress. In order to provide a balance between conflicting needs of the more populated states versus the less so, they devised a system whereby both population densities were addressed. In the Senate, each state would have two senators. In the House, the representation would be based upon population in the state. Realizing potential growth and shifting populations, a provision was made to reapportion the number of representatives of each state based upon a national census to be conducted every ten years.

Boundaries in voting districts may be redrawn allowing for movement of populations. This continual reassessment of populations provides the basis for the argument that each person's vote in congressional elections carries similar weight to any one else's vote.

Sources

Cornell. http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct/.

Dictionary of American History, Volume 2. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1976.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972Wesberry v. Sanders - Significance, One Person, One Vote, Further Readings