Reynolds v. Sims,
377 U.S. 533 (1964)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533 (1964)

Reynolds v. Sims

No. 23

Argued November 13, 1963

Decided June 15, 1964*

377 U.S. 533


Charging that malapportionment of the Alabama Legislature deprived them and others similarly situated of rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Alabama Constitution, voters in several Alabama counties brought suit against various officials having state election duties. Complainants sought a declaration that the existing state legislative apportionment provisions were unconstitutional; an injunction against future elections pending reapportionment in accordance with the State Constitution; or, absent such reapportionment, a mandatory injunction requiring holding the 1962 election for legislators at large over the entire State. The complaint alleged serious discrimination against voters in counties whose populations had grown proportionately far more than others since the 1900 census which, despite Alabama's constitutional requirements for legislative representation based on population and for decennial reapportionment, formed the basis for the existing legislative apportionment. Pursuant to the 1901 constitution, the legislature consisted of 106 representatives and 35 senators for the State's 67 counties and senatorial districts; each county was entitled to at least one representative; each senate district could have only one member, and no county could be divided between two senate districts. A three-judge Federal District Court declined ordering the May, 1962, primary election to be held at large, stating that it should not act before the legislature had further opportunity to take corrective measures before the general election. Finding after a hearing that neither of two apportionment plans which the legislature thereafter adopted, to become effective in 1966, would cure the gross inequality and invidious discrimination of the existing representation, which all parties generally conceded violated the Equal Protection Clause, and that the complainants' votes were unconstitutionally debased under all of the three plans at issue, the District Court ordered temporary reapportionment for the 1962 general

Page 377 U. S. 534

election by combining features of the two plans adopted by the legislature, and enjoined officials from holding future elections under any of the invalid plans. The officials appealed, claiming that the District Court erred in holding unconstitutional the existing and proposed reapportionment plans and that a federal court lacks power affirmatively to reapportion a legislature; two groups of complainants also appealed, one claiming error in the District Court's failure to reapportion the Senate according to population, the other claiming error in its failure to reapportion both houses on a population basis.


1. The right of suffrage is denied by debasement or dilution of a citizen's vote in a state or federal election. Pp. 377 U. S. 554-555.

2. Under the Equal Protection Clause, a claim of debasement of the right to vote through malapportionment presents a justiciable controversy, and the Equal Protection Clause provides manageable standards for lower courts to determine the constitutionality of a state legislative apportionment scheme. Baker v. Carr, 369 U. S. 186, followed. Pp. 377 U. S. 556-557.

3. The Equal Protection Clause requires substantially equal legislative representation for all citizens in a State regardless of where they reside. Pp. 377 U. S. 56l-568.

(a) Legislators represent people, not areas. P. 377 U. S. 562.

(b) Weighting votes differently according to where citizens happen to reside is discriminatory. Pp. 377 U. S. 563-568.

4. The seats in both houses of a bicameral legislature must, under the Equal Protection Clause, be apportioned substantially on a population basis. Pp. 377 U. S. 568-576.

5. The District Court correctly held that the existing Alabama apportionment scheme and both of the proposed plans are constitutionally invalid, since neither legislative house is or would thereunder be apportioned on a population basis. Pp. 377 U. S. 568-571.

6. The superficial resemblance between one of the Alabama apportionment plans and the legislative representation scheme of the Federal Congress affords no proper basis for sustaining that plan, since the historical circumstances which gave rise to the congressional system of representation, arising out of compromise among sovereign States, are unique and without relevance to the allocation of seats in state legislatures. Pp. 377 U. S. 571-577.

7. The federal constitutional requirement that both houses of a state legislature must be apportioned on a population basis means that, as nearly as practicable, districts be of equal population, though mechanical exactness is not required. Somewhat more

Page 377 U. S. 535

flexibility may be constitutionally permissible for state legislative apportionment than for congressional districting. Pp. 377 U. S. 577-581.

(a) A state legislative apportionment scheme may properly give representation to various political subdivisions and provide for compact districts of contiguous territory if substantial equality among districts is maintained. Pp. 377 U. S. 578-579.

(b) Some deviations from a strict equal population principle are constitutionally permissible in the two houses of a bicameral state legislature, where incident to the effectuation of a rational state policy, so long as the basic standard of equality of population among districts is not significantly departed from. P. 377 U. S. 579.

(c) Considerations of history, economic or other group interests, or area alone do not justify deviations from the equal population principle. Pp. 377 U. S. 579-580.

(d) Insuring some voice to political subdivisions in at least one legislative body may, within reason, warrant some deviations from population-based representation in state legislatures. Pp. 377 U. S. 580-581.

8. In admitting States into the Union, Congress does not purport to pass on all constitutional questions concerning the character of state governmental organization, such as whether a state legislature's apportionment departs from the equal population principle; in any case, congressional approval could not validate an unconstitutional state legislative apportionment. P. 377 U. S. 582.

9. States, consistently with the Equal Protection Clause, can properly provide for periodic revision of reapportionment schemes, though revision less frequent than decennial would be constitutionally suspect. Pp. 377 U. S. 583-584.

10. Courts should attempt to accommodate the relief ordered to the apportionment provisions of state constitutions as far as possible, provided that such provisions harmonize with the Equal Protection Clause. P. 377 U. S. 584.

11. A court, in awarding or withholding immediate relief, should consider the proximity of a forthcoming election and the mechanics and complexities of election laws, and should rely on general equitable principles. P. 377 U. S. 585.

12. The District Court properly exercised its judicial power in this case by ordering reapportionment of both houses of the Alabama Legislature for purposes of 1962 elections as a temporary measure by using the best parts of the two proposed plans, each of which it had found, as a whole, invalid, and in retaining jurisdiction while deferring a hearing on the issuance of a final injunction

Page 377 U. S. 536

to give the reapportioned legislature an opportunity to act effectively. Pp. 377 U. S. 586-587.

208 F.Supp. 431, affirmed and remanded for further proceedings.

Primary Holding

Equal protection requires that state legislative districts should be comprised of roughly equal populations if possible.


Lines dividing electoral districts in Alabama had resulted in dramatic population discrepancies among the districts. The state constitution required at least one representative per county and senatorial district. However, the district in Jefferson County near Birmingham contained 41 times as many eligible voters as those in another district of the state. Jefferson County voters argued that this lack of proportionality prevented them from effectively participating in a republican form of government.

In the 1962 decision of Baker v. Carr, the Supreme Court had ruled that the judiciary could address issues such as the boundaries between electoral districts. This case marked a related opportunity for the Court to provide a remedy for voters affected by severe malapportionment, which most often arose because of a population shift throughout the United States from rural areas to cities. Many other states had discrepancies even more pronounced than those challenged in Alabama.



  • Earl Warren (Author)
  • Hugo Lafayette Black
  • William Orville Douglas
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.
  • Byron Raymond White
  • Arthur Joseph Goldberg

This decision is famous for articulating the principle of "one person, one vote." Warren reminded states that voting rights are based not on territory but on population. He hinted that some of the lines might have been drawn with the ulterior motive of benefiting certain interests. The egalitarian language of the opinion reflected the viewpoint of the Warren Court in many of its constitutional law decisions.


  • Tom C. Clark (Author)


  • Potter Stewart (Author)

Agreeing with Warren that the Court could intervene to address egregious situations of misapportionment, Stewart sought to limit the application of this decision to clear violations of equal protection. He felt wary of imposing specific guidelines on states for how to redraw the district lines or setting a certain range of ratios that would be acceptable.


  • John Marshall Harlan II (Author)

Harlan applied an originalist interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment, which in his opinion had not been meant by the drafters to protect voting rights. He suggested that the Court was intruding on federalism principles protecting the states in their control of local matters.

Case Commentary

In Wesberry v. Sanders, decided later that year, the Court applied the same principle to federal Congressional districts. However, contrary to Harlan's ironic suggestion, it did not apply the principle to strike down the rule that each state can elect two Senators. Chaos ensued as states scrambled to reshape their district lines and sometimes amend their constitutions to permit redistricting. Some members of the Senate proposed a constitutional amendment that would overrule the Court and allow for districts with uneven populations, but this did not pass.

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