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Kirkpatrick v. Preisler


Any population variance in congressional districts, no matter how small, places the burden on the state to illustrate that they made a good faith attempt to achieve mathematical equality and that the variations from mathematical equality were the result of unavoidable and articulable justifications, so as nearly as practicable, one person's vote weighs the same as another persons.

The United States Constitution, Article I, Section 2, establishes the Congressional House of Representatives. The House of Representatives membership is based on the population of each state, unlike the Senate, whose membership is two persons per state regardless of population. After each state is assigned a certain number of House representatives, the state is broken down into congressional districts. Each congressional district is permitted to have one member of the House represent that district in Congress. Consistent with the House of Representatives make-up, each state establishes their congressional districts according to population. In an earlier Supreme Court case, Wesberry v. Sanders (1964), the Supreme Court noted that "while it may be impossible [for states] to draw congressional districts with mathematical precision . . . the Constitution requires that as nearly as is practicable one man's vote in a congressional election is to be worth as much as another's." In light of that holding, Missouri's Congressional Redistricting Act was its second attempt at constitutionally acceptable redistricting.

The original redistricting act was declared unconstitutional by a three panel district court in 1965, but they withheld granting any relief until Missouri had a chance to revisit the problem. The Missouri General Assembly then enacted another redistricting statute, but it too was deemed unconstitutional for failure to address equality in population demands. Further, the district court decided to retain jurisdiction, which is the ability of a court to review a claim, of any future redistricting plans. In 1967, Missouri enacted the redistricting statute which was before the Court in this case. The Missouri attorney general requested the district court who retained jurisdiction over this matter to declare this redistricting statute constitutional. In a 2-1 decision, the district court determined that the 1967 statute was unconstitutional. The majority based its holding on the findings that: (1) Missouri did not base its redistricting on census figures, (2) the general assembly rejected another plan with fewer population variances without reason, and (3) simple switching of certain counties from one district to another would greatly reduce the population variances in districts. For those reasons, the district court found that the 1967 statute did not meet the constitutional standard requiring population in districts to be as equal "as nearly practicable" and Missouri did not purport any justifiable reasons for having such population variance from district to district. The Supreme Court reheard Missouri's appeal to determine if, in fact, the redistricting plan was unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court reiterated that the standard for reviewing redistricting acts is that each district should be as equal as possible in population to every other congressional district within the state, as set forth in Wesberry. The constitutional reason for this standard is embodied in the theory that each person's vote must have equal weight. In a 6-3 decision the majority affirmed the lower court finding that the Redistricting Act was in violation of the Constitution. Missouri asserted several justifications for the variance: (1) that the variances between districts was so small that they should be considered de minimis, which means inappreciable or insignificant in number, and (2) that the differences were the result of considering various factors such as the integrity of county lines, compactness of districts, the representation of distinct interest groups, and proportion of nonvoters in a particular district. The Court found none of these arguments convincing.

First, the Supreme Court addressed the de minimus argument. Missouri was granted ten congressional districts and, when taking the population into account, each congressional district would therefore have 431,981 people. The 1967 act created a difference of up to 12,260 persons below the mathematical ideal to 13,542 above the mathematical ideal in certain districts. This meant that the variance from the most to the least populated district was 25,802. Missouri argued that this was merely a difference of 2.26 percent below to 3.13 percent above the ideal and such a small variance was inappreciable. The Supreme Court disagreed. They viewed the statistical data differently. They viewed the difference between the largest and smallest districts as a ratio of 1.06 to 1, meaning that persons in the small districts have a vote weighing .06 more than those in the largest district. The Court held this not to be insignificant. However, more importantly, they felt that any difference, no matter how small, is unacceptable without some justification.

Since equal representation for equal numbers of people is the fundamental goal for the House of Representatives, the "as nearly as practicable" standard requires that the State make a good faith effort to achieve precise mathematical equality. Unless population variances among congressional districts are shown to have resulted despite such effort, the State must justify each variance, no matter how small.

The Court felt that accepting a de minimus approach would encourage the states to draw congressional districts according to that arbitrarily accepted range rather than by mathematical precision. Further, the Court could not rationally pick a number at which point the variance becomes de minimus. Thus, the Court rejected Missouri's argument and felt that mathematical equality should be the goal, unless rational reasons could be given to explain a variance from that equality.

The Court conceded that variances will inevitably occur, but these differences in voting district populations must be shown to be unavoidable despite good faith efforts by the legislatures to achieve total equality. The Court found that the variances in the 1967 redistricting act were avoidable or the reasons for the unavoidability were not articulated to the Court. It is the burden of the state to illustrate why the variances were unavoidable. Thus, the presumption is that absent total equality, the districts are unconstitutional, and it is the burden of the state to reasonably explain the variances.

Missouri first attempted to explain the variances by claiming that population disparity was necessary to avoid "fragmenting areas with distinct economic and social interests." In other words, the state argued that if they attempted equality in voting districts, then the economic and social interests of certain groups, such as farmers, would be diluted because they would be the minority in the district and their interests would never be properly represented. The Supreme Court believed that this did not outweigh the problem of voting district population variances.

Neither history alone, nor economic or other sorts of group interests, are permissible factors in attempting to justify disparities from population based representation.

Other reasons the state gave in attempting to justify the population variances were that they took into account nonvoters within the population of certain districts, considered future population shifts and desired the voting districts to be geographically compact. As with the other arguments given by the state, these too were unconvincing to the Court. The Court quickly dismissed these arguments. First, the state argued that they should be allowed to account for nonvoters in some districts with higher concentrations of persons contained military persons stationed at armed forces bases and college students. Since these persons may be nonvoters within the district, the variances were appropriate. The Court rejected this argument. However, before doing so, they were careful to state that they were not deciding whether apportionment should be based on voter population or total population. The Court simply held that the state made no attempt to ascertain the eligible voters in every district before drawing them up, and, at best, made haphazard apportionment without statistical data. Further, the state failed to explain how other districts containing smaller populations also contained colleges. This justification was merely a retroactive reason to attempt to explain the high concentration of persons in certain districts. With respect to the state's projected population shift justification, the Court again held that these reasons had to be fully documented and applied in a systematic manner and Missouri's attempt at dismissing lower population districts as a well-thought-out plan for future population shifts was unfounded. There was no evidence before the Court that the general assembly considered this prior to the 1967 act. Finally, the state claim that districts should be geographically compact was unconvincing to the Court. They stated that in 1967, transportation and communication were sufficiently advanced to refute the argument. The Court stated that "transportation and communication make rather hollow, in the mid-1960s, most claims that deviations from population based representations can validly be based solely on geographical considerations."

The impact of this decision placed a heavy burden on the states, when developing congressional districts, to meet exact mathematical population perfection or bear the burden of explaining the variances.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972Kirkpatrick v. Preisler - Significance