Baker v. Carr,
369 U.S. 186 (1962)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186 (1962)

Baker v. Carr

No. 6

Argued April 19-20, 1961

Set for reargument May 1, 1961

Reargued October 9, 1961

Decided March 26, 1962

369 U.S. 186


Appellants are persons allegedly qualified to vote for members of the General Assembly of Tennessee representing the counties in which they reside. They brought suit in a Federal District Court in Tennessee under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1988, on behalf of themselves and others similarly situated, to redress the alleged deprivation of their federal constitutional rights by legislation classifying voters with respect to representation in the General Assembly. They alleged that, by means of a 1901 statute of Tennessee arbitrarily and capriciously apportioning the seats in the General Assembly among the State's 95 counties, and a failure to reapportion them subsequently notwithstanding substantial growth and redistribution of the State's population, they suffer a "debasement of their votes," and were thereby denied the equal protection of the laws guaranteed them by the Fourteenth Amendment. They sought, inter alia, a declaratory judgment that the 1901 statute is unconstitutional and an injunction restraining certain state officers from conducting any further elections under it. The District Court dismissed the complaint on the grounds that it lacked jurisdiction of the subject matter and that no claim was stated upon which relief could be granted.


1. The District Court had jurisdiction of the subject matter of the federal constitutional claim asserted in the complaint. Pp. 369 U. S. 198-204.

2. Appellants had standing to maintain this suit. Pp. 369 U. S. 204-208.

3. The complaint's allegations of a denial of equal protection presented a justiciable constitutional cause of action upon which appellants are entitled to a trial and a decision. Pp. 369 U. S. 208-37.

179 F.Supp. 824, reversed and cause remanded

Page 369 U. S. 187

Primary Holding

Drawing lines around state electoral districts can be reviewed by courts because the political question doctrine does not apply.


In the late 1950s, the state of Tennessee was still using boundaries between electoral districts that had been devised in 1901, according to the 1900 census. However, the state constitution required revising the lines every 10 years to account for changes in population. Since 1901, population changes had resulted in vast disparities between the Shelby County district in which Memphis was located and other surrounding districts. This meant that the votes of people in rural areas had a proportionately greater value than the votes of people in urban areas. A Republican voter who lived in an urban area of Shelby County, Charles Baker, brought a claim to argue that he was denied equal protection of the laws under the Fourteenth Amendment because his vote was devalued.

The named defendant was Joseph Carr, the Tennessee Secretary of State, who oversaw the election process in the state but did not construct the boundaries. Citing the political question doctrine, Tennessee argued that courts could not provide a remedy for this issue. Instead, they should allow the political process to function independently.



  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr. (Author)
  • Hugo Lafayette Black
  • Earl Warren

Offering a clearer vision of the political question doctrine, Brennan streamlined it into six factors that must be present for a court to withhold its opinion on an issue:

1) A textual constitutional commitment of the matter to another branch of government, such as the power of the President in foreign affairs (note that later cases did not strictly adhere to this view);
2) A lack of judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving the issue;
3) A need for an initial policy determination before addressing the matter that courts would not be able to reach;
4) A situation in which independent court action would violate the separation of powers framework;
5) An unusual need to strictly adhere to a previous political decision; or
6) A possibility that clashing statements on an issue by multiple branches of government would cause embarrassment.

Brennan found that these factors were not present in the current case, so he ruled that it was justiciable rather than a political question. Since there was no majority but only a plurality, however, the Court could not grant relief to Baker outright. Instead, it remanded the case to the lower courts for further consideration.


  • William Orville Douglas (Author)


  • Tom C. Clark (Author)


  • Potter Stewart (Author)


  • Felix Frankfurter (Author)
  • John Marshall Harlan II

Taking a more cautious view of the separation of powers, Frankfurter lamented that the Court had stepped beyond the appropriate boundaries of the judicial role. He would have allowed the political process to determine the relative impact of an individual's vote.


  • Charles Evans Whittaker (Author)

Health issues caused by the heated debate over the case forced Whittaker to withdraw from the deliberations and arguably into early retirement.

Case Commentary

Although cases brought under the Guaranty Clause historically are usually considered to be nonjusticiable, courts have tried to find alternate grounds for these claims that allow them to be considered. This trend shows that the scope of the political question doctrine is shrinking, although this may be tempered by increasingly strict limits on standing.

The sequel to this case would come in 1964 with Reynolds v. Sims, when the Court articulated the principle of "one person, one vote" that would require many states to redraw the lines of their electoral districts and amend their constitutions. This applies to all states with bicameral legislatures. As a result, the process of creating districts has become extremely complex. In ensuring that each person's vote has approximately the same power, counties and districts often overlap. Urban areas also received more power at the expense of rural areas.

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