In 1964, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in Wesberry v. Sanders that members of the U.S. House of Representatives must be chosen from districts approximately equal in population. That same year, in Reynolds v. Sims, the Court ruled that members of both houses of a state legislature must be chosen from districts approximately equal in population.
In 1970, as required by the Texas Constitution after each national census, the Texas Legislature drew up a reapportionment plan for the Texas House of Representatives but was unable to agree upon a reapportionment plan for the Texas Senate. Litigation was immediately filed in a Texas District Court challenging the constitutionality of the reapportionment plan for the Texas House. The Texas Supreme Court eventually ruled that the legislature’s House reapportionment plan violated the Texas Constitution. Meanwhile, as required by the Texas Constitution, the Legislative Redistricting Board began the task of reapportioning the Texas Senate. Because of the judicial invalidation of the House reapportionment plan, the Board soon also had to work on reapportioning the Texas House.
In October 1971, the Board released its proposed reapportionment plans for both chambers of the Texas Legislature. Four lawsuits, eventually consolidated, were filed in a three-judge U.S. District Court. With respect to the House plan, these lawsuits alleged that the districts as drawn contained impermissible deviations from population equality and that the plan’s multi-member districts for Dallas and Bexar counties were constitutionally invalid because they diluted the voting strength of racial and ethnic minorities. The three-judge District Court upheld the reapportionment plan for the Senate but agreed with both arguments made by the plaintiffs and found the House plan unconstitutional. This court gave the Texas Legislature until July 1973 to reapportion the Texas House but did allow the Legislative Redistricting Board’s plan to be used for the 1972 elections except for the requirement that the multi-member districts for Dallas and Bexar counties be reconstituted into single-member districts. As provided by law, the judgment of the three-judge U.S. District Court was appealed directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Court considered the following questions:
- Are the legislative districts for the Texas House of Representatives drawn by the Texas Legislative Redistricting Board unconstitutional because the districts vary too much in population size and thus violate the equal protection of the law clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution?
- Are the multimember Texas House districts created for Dallas and Bexar counties discriminatory against racial or ethnic minorities in those counties and thus unconstitutional?
Justice Byron White delivered the opinion of the Court.
Speaking through Justice Byron White, the Supreme Court by a 6-3 vote reversed the three-judge U.S. District Court’s judgment on the first question. Justice White pointed out that the population variance between the largest and the smallest Texas House district created by the Legislative Redistricting Board’s reapportionment plan was 9.9 percent. The majority concluded that this variance was acceptable, and thus, the district court was in error on this point. Referring to several of the Supreme Court’s prior rulings, Justice White wrote: “[S]tate reapportionment statutes are not subject to the same strict standards applicable to reapportionment of congressional seats.” He went on to write: “[W]e do not consider relatively minor population deviations among state legislative districts to substantially dilute the weight of individual votes in the larger districts so as to deprive individuals in those districts of fair and effective representation. … We cannot glean an equal protection violation from the single fact that two legislative districts in Texas differ from one another by as much as 9.9 percent when compared to the ideal district. Very likely, larger differences between districts would not be tolerable …”
Justice William Brennan , joined by Justices William O. Douglas and Thurgood Marshall , disagreed with the majority’s position relative to this first question. Brennan wrote: “[T]he decision to uphold the state apportionment scheme reflects a substantial and very unfortunate retreat from the principles established in our earlier cases … one can reasonably surmise that a line has been drawn at 10 percent … deviations less than that amount require no justification whatsoever. … We have demanded equality in district population precisely to ensure that the weight of a person’s vote will not depend on the district in which he lives. The conclusion that a state may, without any articulated justification, deliberately weight some persons’ votes more heavily than others seems to me fundamentally at odds with the purpose and rationale of our reapportionment decisions.”
The Court’s decision relative to the second question was 9-0. Still speaking through Justice White, the Court thus unanimously concluded that the multi-member House districts for Dallas and Bexar counties were unconstitutional. Justice White wrote that the District Court correctly did not hold “that every racial or political group has a constitutional right to be represented in the state legislature.” However, he continued, “from its special vantage point,” the District Court did conclude that the multimember districts in Dallas and Bexar counties “invidiously excluded “ African-Americans and Mexican-Americans “from effective participation in political life, specifically in the election of representatives to the Texas House of Representatives.”
- Constitutional Rights Foundation — Free Lessons Index
- “St. Mary’s University School of Law celebrates another landmark case,” Latino Life, mySA.com blog, 2008