This case, filed by urban voters against the Tennessee Secretary of State and Attorney General in the U.S. District Court of Middle Tennessee, was one of the U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren's most important decisions. After the district court dismissed their case, the Supreme Court decided in favor of the plaintiffs following two separate rounds of oral arguments in which the U.S. solicitor general intervened on their behalf.
The voters argued that Tennessee's system of state legislative apportionment debased their votes under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Tennessee was using an electoral system that gave weight to counties as geographical units rather than equalizing population among districts. Despite a state constitutional provision mandating reapportionment every ten years, Tennessee had not reapportioned since 1901. In the interim, the state's population had grown from just over two million to more than three and one-half million.
Prior to 1962 the Supreme Court had ruled that issues of state legislative apportionment were “political questions,” inappropriate for judicial resolution. The Court's plurality opinion in Colegrove v. Green (1946) reflected this position. It, in turn, rested on Luther v. Borden, an 1849 case arising under the Guarantee Clause in Article IV of the U.S. Constitution.
Given these precedents, Justice William Brennan's 6-2 majority opinion in Baker focused on the threshold issues of justiciability and standing rather than on formulating specific remedies. In addressing the jurisdiction issue, Brennan decided that apportionment was a federal claim arising under the Fourteenth Amendment and amenable to judicial scrutiny. Brennan further ruled that voters initiating this case had standing to claim that their votes were being arbitrarily impaired or debased. Finally, in addressing justiciability and the “political questions” doctrine, Brennan sidestepped Luther and Colegrove by distinguishing claims brought under the equal protection clause from those under the Guarantee Clause. Brennan outlined six categories of political questions. These involved foreign affairs and conflicts among the three branches of government rather than federalism issues. The Court accordingly remanded the case to the district court for further action.
Justices William O. Douglas, Tom C. Clark, and Potter Stewart filed concurring opinions. Justice Clark's noteworthy opinion argued that Tennessee's apportionment system was arbitrary and observed that, in the absence of initiative or referendum mechanisms, judicial intervention was the only effective remedy.
Justices Felix Frankfurter and John M. Harlan II authored vigorous dissents. Both objected to the Court's departure from precedent, to intervention in a potential mathematical quagmire, and to the lack of standards by which to resolve apportionment issues under the Fourteenth Amendment.
Baker resulted in an avalanche of suits in other states as well as an ultimately unsuccessful movement to call a national convention to propose a repeal amendment. Meanwhile, the Court proceeded in Gray v. Sanders (1963) to invalidate Georgia's county-unit system of primary elections. There Justice Douglas formulated a “one person one vote” standard that the Court applied to both houses of state legislatures in Reynolds v. Sims (1964). These basic standards remain in force throughout the nation.
Richard C. Cortner, The Apportionment Cases (1970); Jene Graham, One Man, One Vote: Baker v. Carr and the American Levellers (1972)