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Reynolds v. Sims

"legislators Represent People, Not Trees"

Chief Justice Warren began his opinion for the Court by noting that because there appeared to be no political remedy to malapportionment in Alabama, the federal courts were obliged to make a ruling. The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees that each citizen's vote will have equal weight in determining the outcome of state elections. In order to insure that this happened, the federal courts had to devise and enforce redistricting plans that would result in each state representative being elected by and responsive to roughly the same number of voters. As Warren put it:

Legislators represent people, not trees or acres. Legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests. As long as ours is a representative form of government, and our legislatures are those instruments of government elected directly by and directly representative of the people, the right to elect legislators in a free and unimpaired fashion is a bedrock of our political system.

For the Court, the effect of substantial disparities in population from one district to the next was to deprive some voters of the franchise, while granting others more than one vote.

The Court did recognize some practical limitations on the ideal represented by the principle of "one person, one vote." It was not possible to come up with exact mathematical ratios of how the electorate was to be divided in a given state. And there had to be some acknowledgment of traditional political subdivisions and differing community interests. However, the Court specifically ruled out the use of the federal model in state legislatures. That is, while in the U.S. Congress the number of representatives is based on state population, regardless of its size each state sends two representatives to the Senate. In Reynolds the Court found that there was convincing evidence that three-fourths of the original state constitutions envisioned that the number of representatives sent to both houses of their state legislatures would be determined by population.

With one stroke, at least one house of most state legislatures was rendered unconstitutional. Over the next two years, the political map of virtually the entire country was redrawn. Yet problems remained. The lone dissenter in Reynolds was Justice Harlan, who argued, as he had in Baker v. Carr, that the Court was interfering with the political process and with the principle of federalism that bound individual states to the union by recognizing their autonomy. Indeed, because the Court could arrive at no precise formula for redistricting, partisan gerrymandering, or manipulation of election boundaries, resulted in more and more litigation. Mathematical models ultimately failed, and new, clearly nonsensical election boundaries began themselves to threaten fair representation.

Justice Harlan declared in his dissent that, "The Constitution is not a panacea for every blot upon the public welfare, nor should this Court, ordained as a judicial body, be thought of as a general haven for reform movements." But where the political process cannot itself cure partisan advantages born of gerrymandering, the Court has continued to intervene, mandating reapportionment to insure fair and effective representation.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972Reynolds v. Sims - Significance, "legislators Represent People, Not Trees", The Census, Further Readings