The Tennessee Constitution requires apportionment of both houses of the state legislature on the basis of population after the census every 10 years. However, no apportionment had been carried out in this manner since a 1901 statute was instituted to apportion members of the legislature among the state’s 95 counties, in spite of changes in population growth and the movement of large numbers of people from rural areas to urban areas of the state. As a result, by 1960, the state’s House districts varied in population from 3,454 to 79,301, and the state’s Senate districts varied in population from 39,727 to 237,905.
The mayor of Nashville, a county judge, and residents of several Tennessee urban areas filed suit in federal court against Joe C. Carr, the Tennessee Secretary of State, and other state officials. They argued that the 1901 Tennessee apportionment law denied them the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. They sought to have the apportionment law declared unconstitutional and to obtain an injunction restraining the conduct of further elections under the law. The complainants also requested the court to order an election at large for members of the state legislature or, as an alternative, to order an election with equitably apportioned legislative districts based on the most recent census figures.A three-judge U.S. District Court dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction based on the 1946 case of Colegrove v. Green where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal courts did not have jurisdiction to hear cases involving the drawing of legislative districts because this was a “political question” to be answered by the elected branches of government. The plaintiffs then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court
The Court considered the following question:
Under the equal protection of the law clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, do federal courts have jurisdiction to hear cases involving the drawing of legislative districts?
By a 6-2 vote (one justice did not participate), the Supreme Court overturned the prior Supreme Court ruling in Colegrove v. Green and held that under the equal protection of the law clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, federal courts do have jurisdiction to hear cases involving the drawing of legislative districts. Writing for the majority, Justice William Brennan pointed out that the plaintiffs' votes had been debased by the Tennessee Legislature’s failure to redraw districts for the state legislature in accordance with its own constitution. He wrote: “These appellants seek relief in order to protect or vindicate an interest of their own, and of those similarly situated. Their constitutional claim is, in substance, that the 1901 statute constitutes arbitrary and capricious state action, offensive to the Fourteenth Amendment in its irrational disregard of the standard of apportionment prescribed by the State's Constitution or of any standard, effecting a gross disproportion of representation to the voting population. The injury which appellants assert is that this classification disfavors the voters in the counties in which they reside, placing them in a position of constitutionally unjustifiable inequality vis-a-vis voters in irrationally favored counties. A citizen's right to a vote free of arbitrary impairment by state action has been judicially recognized as a right secured by the Constitution, when such impairment resulted from dilution by a false tally. …”
Referring to the Court’s 1946 decision in Colegrove v. Green, Brennan asserted that “the District Court misinterpreted Colegrove v. Green and other decisions of this Court on which it relied. Appellants’ claim that they are being denied equal protection is justiciable, and if discrimination is sufficiently shown, the right to relief under the equal protection clause is not diminished by the fact that the discrimination relates to political rights. … We conclude that the complaint's allegations of a denial of equal protection present a justiciable constitutional cause of action upon which appellants are entitled to a trial and a decision. The right asserted is within the reach of judicial protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.”
Justice Tom Clark concurred and in a concurring opinion described the apportionment picture in Tennessee as a “... a crazy quilt without rational basis." He then proceeded to show that the plaintiffs had no way of challenging the discrimination in voting strength and that the only road open to them was through the courts. He concluded: “As John Rutledge said 175 years ago in the course of the Constitutional Convention, a chief function of the Court is to secure the national rights. Its decision today supports the proposition for which our forebears fought and many died, namely, that to be fully conformable to the principle of right, the form of government must be representative. That is the keystone upon which our government was founded and lacking which no republic can survive. It is well for this Court to practice self-restraint and discipline in constitutional adjudication, but never in its history have those principles received sanction where the national rights of so many have been so clearly infringed for so long a time. National respect for the courts is more enhanced through the forthright enforcement of those rights rather than by rendering them nugatory through the interposition of subterfuges. In my view the ultimate decision today is in the greatest tradition of this Court.”
Because he had written the opinion of the Court in Colegrove v. Green, Justice Felix Frankfurter felt strongly about its repudiation. He thus dissented and in a dissenting opinion, joined by Justice John Marshall Harlan III, argued once again that the courts are competent neither to determine the constitutionality of election districts nor to formulate workable remedies. He warned the courts once more about the damage they might incur by engaging in political matters: “The Court's authority -- possessed neither of the purse nor the sword--ultimately rests on sustained public confidence in its moral sanction. Such feeling must be nourished by the Court's complete detachment, in fact and in appearance, from political entanglements and by abstention from injecting itself into the clash of political forces in political settlements. … This would lead the judiciary into a ‘mathematical quagmire.’”
Justice Harlan wrote his own dissenting opinion which Justice Frankfurter joined. Harlan asserted that the Tennessee districts were not so irrational as to be unconstitutional. He wrote: “It is at once essential to recognize this case for what it is. The issue here related ... to the right of a State to fix the basis of representation in its own legislature. … I can find nothing in the Equal Protection Clause or elsewhere in the Federal Constitution which expressly or impliedly supports the view that state legislatures must be so structured as to reflect with approximate equality the voice of every voter. Not only is that proposition refuted by history … but it strikes deep into the heart of our federal system. In the last analysis, what lies at the core of this controversy is a difference of opinion as to the function of representative government. It is surely beyond argument that those who have the responsibility for devising a system of representation may permissibly consider that factors other than bare numbers should be taken into account. There is nothing in the Federal Constitution to prevent a State, acting not irrationally, from choosing any electoral legislative structure it thinks best suited to the interests, temper, and customs of its people.... A state's choice to distribute electoral strength among geographical units, rather than according to a census of population, is certainly no less a rational decision of policy than would be its choice to levy a tax on property rather than a tax on income. Both are legislative judgments entitled to equal respect from this Court. …”