ArtIII.S2.C1.9.4 From Coleman v. Miller to Baker v. Carr

Article III, Section 2, Clause 1:

The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority;—to all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls;—to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction; to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party;—to Controversies between two or more States; between a State and Citizens of another State, between Citizens of different States,—between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.

The Supreme Court also applied the political question doctrine in the 1939 case Coleman v. Miller.1 In Coleman, the Court addressed the Kansas legislature’s recent approval of the proposed Child Labor Amendment to the Constitution, which had been submitted to the states for ratification thirteen years prior.2 Members of the Kansas legislature who had voted against the amendment petitioned for a writ of mandamus, seeking to revoke the approval.3 They raised certain procedural challenges to the ratification and argued that the passage of time had rendered Kansas’s approval of the amendment invalid.4 The opinion of the Court, authored by Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, affirmed an opinion from the Supreme Court of Kansas denying the plaintiffs’ petition.5 Chief Justice Hughes’s opinion explained that the “efficacy of ratifications by state legislature . . . should be regarded as a political question pertaining to the political departments.” 6 The Court further clarified, citing to Luther, that it was a question solely for Congress, and not for the courts, whether an amendment had been adopted within a “reasonable time.” 7

It was against this background that the Court decided Colegrove v. Green,8 in 1946. By that time, movement of populations from rural to urban areas had led to severe “malapportionment” in state legislatures.9 Throughout the country, state legislative districts were drawn such that voters in rural areas had disproportionate power compared to their urban counterparts. State governments, made up of the representatives of those rural voters, were unwilling to fix this problem.10 As a result, voters in underrepresented districts turned to the courts and the Constitution for a remedy. In Colegrove, a seven-member Court was presented with a constitutional challenge to an Illinois districting arrangement where plaintiffs were members of districts with much larger populations than other districts.11 The challenge was based, in part, on the Guarantee Clause, as well as on the Fourteenth Amendment. A plurality12 of three Justices joined an opinion by Justice Felix Frankfurter, concluding that the Court lacked jurisdiction in light of the “peculiarly political nature” of the case.13 The plurality noted that under Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution, “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for . . . Representative, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations.” 14 Citing that provision, the plurality concluded that the authority to regulate state districting rested “exclusively” with Congress, and courts had no authority to “enter this political thicket.” 15 The Colegrove plurality’s view of the political question doctrine, as the Supreme Court later recognized, “left pervasive malapportionment unchecked.” 16

Sixteen years later, the Court confronted malapportionment again in Baker v. Carr.17 Rejecting Colegrove, the Baker Court set forth the modern rule on political questions and justiciability.18 In Baker, the Court addressed an equal protection challenge to malapportioned districts in the State of Tennessee19 and concluded that, notwithstanding the political question doctrine, the plaintiffs’ challenge to the state legislative map could proceed.20 The Court in Baker identified the six criteria for “political question” cases listed above, reviewed areas where the Court had previously applied the political question doctrine, and concluded that past challenges brought under the Guarantee Clause had failed largely due to a lack of “judicially manageable standards.” 21 By contrast, the Court reasoned, “[j]udicial standards under the Equal Protection Clause are well developed and familiar.” 22 Shortly after Baker, the Supreme Court found the “judicially manageable standard” it was looking for, and articulated the so-called “one-person-one-vote” rule to overturn malapportioned districts.23 Since Baker, courts have consistently determined that challenges to state legislative apportionment are justiciable.24

307 U.S. 433 (1939). back
Id. at 435–36. back
Id. at 436. back
Id. back
The splintered opinions in Coleman make it difficult to determine the Court’s holding. Although Justice Charles Evans Hughes’s opinion was styled “the opinion of the Court,” it was joined by only two other justices. Four other justices concurred in the judgment, in twin opinions by Justices Felix Frankfurter and Hugo Black arguing that the petitioners lacked standing. Id. at 456–59. Two other justices, Justices Pierce Butler and James McReynolds, dissented. But, as the Supreme Court later explained in analyzing the multiple opinions in Coleman, “even though there were only two Justices who joined Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes’ opinion on the merits, it is apparent that the two dissenting Justices joined his opinion as to the standing discussion. Otherwise, Justice Felix Frankfurter’s opinion denying standing would have been the controlling opinion.” Raines v. Byrd, 521 U.S. 811, 822 n.5 (1997) (discussing the various opinions in Coleman). back
Coleman, 307 U.S. at 450. back
Id. at 454. back
328 U.S. 549 (1946). back
Erwin Chemerinsky, Federal Jurisdiction § 2.6.3 (6th ed. 2012). back
Id. See also Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533, 567 (1964) ( “The complexions of societies and civilizations change, often with amazing rapidity. A nation once primarily rural in character becomes predominantly urban. Representation schemes once fair and equitable become archaic and outdated.” ) (footnote omitted). back
Colegrove, 328 U.S. at 550. back
When no majority of the Supreme Court agrees on an opinion in a case, the Court may issue a plurality opinion articulating the reasoning that received the most votes. The Supreme Court has stated, “When a fragmented Court decides a case and no single rationale explaining the result enjoys the assent of five Justices, ‘the holding of the Court may be viewed as that position taken by those Members who concurred in the judgments on the narrowest grounds.’” Marks v. United States, 430 U.S. 188, 193 (1977) (quoting Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 169 n.15 (1976) (opinion of Stewart, Powell, & Stevens, JJ.)). For discussion of the precedential value of plurality decisions, see Kevin M. Lewis, What Happens When Five Supreme Court Justices Can’t Agree?, Cong. Research Serv. (June 4, 2018), back
Colegrove, 328 U.S. at 552 (holding that a complaint alleging that “great mass of the white population intends to keep the blacks from voting” had no judicial remedy, “[u]nless we are prepared to supervise the voting in that state by officers of the court, it seems to us that all the plaintiff could get from equity would be an empty form” ) (citing Giles v. Harris, 189 U.S. 475, 487–88 (1903)). Justice Wiley Rutledge concurred in the result in Colegrove, getting the Court to a majority of four votes. Id. at 564 (Rutledge, J., concurring in the result). However, Justice Wiley Rutledge would have dismissed for want of equitable power to grant relief, rather than a want of jurisdiction because of the presence of a political question. Id. at 565. back
U.S. Const. art. I, § 4, cl. 1. back
Colegrove, 328 U.S. at 556. back
Evenwel v. Abbott, No. 14-940, slip op. at 2 (U.S. Apr. 4, 2016). back
369 U.S. 186, 217 (1962). back
One year prior to Baker, the Court ruled, in the 1960 case Gomillion v. Lightfoot, 364 U.S. 339 (1960), in an opinion by Justice Felix Frankfurter, that Colegrove did not form an obstacle to a challenge to an election district allegedly drawn to remove Black voters from the district. Id. at 346–48. See also Shaw v. Hunt, 517 U.S. 899, 904–05 (1996) (concluding that standing existed in an equal protection challenge to North Carolina districting based on race); Miller v. Johnson, 515 U.S. 900, 922 (1995) (holding that an allegation that race was the legislature’s rationale in drawing district lines could go forward, even though Department of Justice concluded that racial districting is necessary under the Voting Rights Act). back
In Baker, unlike Gomillion, the plaintiffs did not allege any discrimination in drawing of the districts, but rather that their equal protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment were violated by the “debasement” of their votes, insofar as their votes counted “less” than voters in other districts. Baker, 369 U.S. at 187–88. back
Id. at 237. back
Id. at 223 ( “[T]he only significance that Luther could have for our immediate purposes is in its holding that the Guaranty Clause is not a repository of judicially manageable standards which a court could utilize independently in order to identify a State’s lawful government.” ). back
Id. at 226. back
See Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533, 568 (1964). See also Wesberry v. Sanders, 376 U.S. 1, 18 (1964) ( “While it may not be possible to draw congressional districts with mathematical precision, that is no excuse for ignoring our Constitution’s plain objective of making equal representation for equal numbers of people the fundamental goal[.]” ). back
See also U.S. Dep’t of Com. v. Montana, 503 U.S. 442, 456–59 (1992) (concluding that congressional apportionment of congressional districts among states did not involve nonjusticiable political question). back