3 minute read

Davis v. Bandemer


The ruling made clear that the Supreme Court can decide challenges to legislative redistricting plans which are alleged to discriminate against certain political groups, as opposed to racial, religious, or other similar groups. Thus, for the first time the Supreme Court held that political gerrymandering can violate the Constitution. However, the test adopted by a plurality of the Court makes such challenges to redistricting plans extremely difficult to prove.

Following the 1980 U.S. census, the Indiana legislature began the task of redrawing the districts from which its members are elected. This process, known as reapportionment or redistricting, was required under Indiana law every ten years, following the census. The Indiana legislature consists of a house of representatives and a senate. The 50 senators are elected from 50 separate districts. However, the 100 representatives are elected from less than 100 separate districts; thus, some districts, based on their population, elected two or three representatives. In early 1981, the Indiana legislature adopted a redistricting plan providing for 61 districts which elected only one representative, nine districts which elected two representatives, and seven districts which elected three representatives. At the time this redistricting plan was adopted, a majority of both branches of the legislature were members of the Republican party, as was the governor, who approved the plan.

In early 1982, a number of legislators who were members of the Democratic party filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana against various state officials involved in adopting the redistricting plan. The Democrats claimed that the Republican legislature and governor had purposefully drawn the districts in such a way as to disadvantage the Democrats in future elections, a process known as political gerrymandering. Gerrymandering generally is the practice of drawing legislative districts in such a way as to favor or disfavor a certain group. This practice was named after Massachusetts governor and Constitutional Convention representative Elbridge Gerry, who first used the practice in 1812. The Indiana Democrats contended that the state's 1981 redistricting constituted political gerrymandering designed to disfavor Democratic candidates by concentrating voters who traditionally voted Democratic to a few districts. They argued that this gerrymandering violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which in part provides that no state shall "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." Prior to any action being taken in the case, Indiana conducted elections pursuant to the redistricting plan in November of 1982. Although the Democratic house of representative candidates received 51.9 percent of the vote throughout the state, only 43 Democrats were elected to the 100 seats available.

The case was heard by a three-judge panel of the district court. After reviewing the statistics from the 1982 elections, and hearing testimony from a number of Republican legislators about their motives in drawing the districts, the district court concluded that the redistricting plan constituted a political gerrymander. The district court also concluded that this gerrymander violated the equal protection rights of Democratic candidates and voters. The state officials appealed this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. Although a majority of the Court agreed that the district court's decision should be reversed, there was no majority agreement on the reason. Justice O'Connor, writing an opinion which was joined by Chief Justice Burger and Justice Rehnquist, thought the case should be reversed because it presented a political question which could not be resolved by the federal courts. Justice White, writing an opinion which was joined by Justices Brennan, Marshall, and Blackmun, concluded that the Court could resolve the issue, but agreed that reversal was appropriate because the Indiana Democrats did not show that their equal protection rights were violated. Finally, Justice Powell, writing for himself and Justice Stevens, concluded that the district court should be affirmed because the Indiana Democrats had established an equal protection violation.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988Davis v. Bandemer - Significance, A Political Question?, An Agreeable Test, Inconsistent Results, Impact, Further Readings