Baker v. Carr

The founders of the American government created a democratic republic: a type of indirect democracy in which people hold the power and elect representatives to do the work of lawmaking. Representatives are supposed to represent and reflect the will of the people.

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Baker v. Carr Baker v. Carr

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    But what happens when a citizen doesn’t receive fair representation? What if another citizen's voice actually weighs more than theirs? How exactly is representation in congress determined, and what does it have to do with the constitutional rights of citizens? Does the Supreme Court even have the jurisdiction to decide on matters involving state legislative boundaries?

    Citizen participation is at the heart of a healthy democracy, and the landmark case Baker v. Carr centers on fairness in representation, equal protection of the laws, and the power of the Supreme Court to decide on such cases.

    Baker v. Carr Summary

    The legislative branch in America is a bicameral legislature. The population of the House of Representatives is determined by each state’s population, with the total number of representatives set at 435. The number of senators is always 100, and each state receives two. The bicameral legislature is a result of the Great Compromise of 1787. The Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan were combined into one legislative body that reflects the desires of both large and small states.

    So, how do we know how many representatives each state should receive? Every ten years, a census is carried out, and the country's entire population is counted. Once the population of each state is counted, reapportionment may occur. If a population goes up or down, a state may gain or lose representation. After reapportionment, state legislatures must draw new districts in a process known as redistricting, and the party in power most often draws the district lines to benefit their party.

    Before 1962, the Supreme Court had stayed out of disagreements regarding the redistricting process. Redistricting has a tremendous amount of influence on participation in democracy and who gains power in the House of Representatives. Therefore, legislative redistricting was seen as a political matter left to the states. However, in 1962, the landmark decision in Baker v. Carr paved the way for federal courts to rule in cases regarding the way states draw their legislative boundaries.

    Who was Charles Baker?

    Charles Baker was a resident of Shelby County (Memphis), Tennessee. Even though the population of the state had changed, Tennessee had not changed its legislative districts since the 1900 census. In addition to an increase in population, Tennessee experienced a shift in population as well. More people moved to urban areas, such as Shelby County. As a result, a heavily populated area, such as Shelby County, had one representative, and counties with far fewer people also had one representative.

    Baker believed that his constitutional rights were violated by unfair representation. The 14th Amendment promises equal protection of the laws. Baker felt that his vote was being devalued because rural areas had lower citizen-representative ratios. His and other urban voters' voices were being diluted.

    Baker sued the state officials (Secretary of State Carr) in charge of elections in the U.S. District Court, a federal court. The state of Tennessee said the issue was outside the jurisdiction of federal courts. His complaint was dismissed, and Baker appealed to the Supreme Court. They decided to hear the case.

    Issue

    The question the Court had to decide was: Do federal courts have the power to decide in cases regarding the constitutionality of state legislative redistricting?

    Arguments for Baker

    • Article III reads: “the judicial power shall extend to all Cases, in law and equity, arising under.” Obviously, the federal courts should be able to render judgment on this issue.

    • Just because an issue involves politics doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a “political question” that the Courts can involve themselves with.

    • Just because Courts have stayed out of state redistricting in the past doesn’t mean that’s good practice. Tradition isn’t a good enough excuse to stay out of something that is so central to democratic participation.

    • Charles Baker’s 14th Amendment rights have been violated.

    Political question: a doctrine of the federal courts. It’s used as a means to avoid ruling on certain cases. It most often deals with issues between Congress and the president.

    Arguments for Carr

    • Federal Courts do not have the authority to hear cases regarding state legislative districts.

    • If the Court rules in this matter, it will be an overreach and abuse of power. Tennessee should be able to determine whether its districts are fair.

    • There is nothing in the Constitution that says that legislative districts have to have the same number of people.

    • If the residents of Tennessee believe that their state legislature is drawing districts unfairly, it’s up to them to encourage their elected officials to make the change.

    Fig 1, Supreme Court of the United States, StudySmarterFig. 1, Supreme Court of the United States, Wikimedia Commons

    Baker v. Carr Ruling

    In a 6-2 ruling, the Supreme Court ruled for Baker. The majority opinion was written by Justice Brennan, and he was joined in the majority by Chief Justice Earl Warren and Justice Black. Concurring opinions were written by Justices Clark, Douglas, and Stewart.

    The majority held that federal courts have the authority to decide cases that involve equal protection of the laws. Justice Brennan wrote,

    “We conclude that the complaint’s allegations of denial of equal protection present a justiciable constitutional cause of action upon which appellants are entitled to a trial and a decision.”

    Justiciable constitutional cause of action: a situation in which the federal courts have the power to rule because the case deals with a violation of the constitutional rights of people.

    Baker v. Carr, Chief Justice Earl Warren, StudySmarterFig 2. Chief Justice Earl Warren, Wikipedia

    Baker v. Carr Dissenting Opinion

    Justices Frankfurter and Harlan dissented and wrote that the Court should abide by precedent and continue to refuse to render decisions regarding a state’s districts. Harlan wrote,

    “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, as shown by my Brother Frankfurter, but it strikes deep into the heart of our federal system. Its acceptance would require us to turn our backs on the regard which this Court has always shown for the judgment of state legislatures and courts on matters of basically local concern.”

    Baker v. Carr Significance

    Baker v. Carr is a significant Supreme Court case because it gave the federal courts the authority to hear cases regarding constitutional violations that may occur when state legislatures draw district boundaries. The decision was a break from tradition and precedent and opened the door for the Court to rule in a significant number of cases involving equal protection and redistricting.

    Baker v. Carr Impact

    Chief Justice Earl Warren served on the Supreme Court from 1953-1969 and oversaw numerous landmark decisions that dealt with the protection of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. After he retired, he remarked that Baker v. Carr was the most important case of his career. Baker v. Carr helped to establish the principle of “one person – one vote” that expanded fair democratic participation and helped to protect the voting rights of minority groups.

    Baker v. Carr, One Man-One Vote protest sign at 1964 DNC, StudySmarterFig. 3 One Man, One Vote Protest Sign at 1964 Democratic National Convention, Wikimedia Commons

    Baker v. Carr - Key Takeaways

    • The question the Court had to decide in Baker v. Carr was: Do federal courts have the power to decide in cases regarding the constitutionality of state legislative redistricting?

    • In a 6-2 ruling, the Supreme Court ruled for Baker. The majority held that federal courts have the authority to decide cases that involve equal protection of the laws.

    • The Constitutional provision central to Baker v. Carr is the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.

    • Baker v. Carr is a significant Supreme Court case because it gave the federal courts the authority to hear cases regarding constitutional violations that may occur when state legislatures draw district boundaries.

    • Baker v. Carr helped to establish the principle of “one person – one vote” that expanded fair democratic participation and helped to protect the voting rights of minority groups.


    References

    1. http://landmarkcases.c-span.org/pdf/Baker_Harlan_Dissent.pdf
    2. http://landmarkcases.c-span.org/Case/10/Baker-V-Carr
    3. "Baker v. Carr." Oyez, www.oyez.org/cases/1960/6. Accessed 17 Sep. 2022.
    4. Fig. 1, Supreme Court of the United States (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Supreme_Court_of_the_United_States#/media/File:Supreme_Court_Front_Dusk.jpg) by Noclip at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia, In Public Domain
    5. Fig. 2, Chief Justice Earl Warren (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earl_Warren#/media/File:Earl_Warren.jpg) By Harris & Ewing photography firm (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harris_%26_Ewing) In Public Domain
    Frequently Asked Questions about Baker v. Carr

    What was the outcome of the Baker v? Carr decision?

    In a 6-2 ruling, the Supreme Court ruled for Baker. The majority held that federal courts have the authority to decide cases that involve equal protection of the laws. 

    What was the ruling in Baker v. Carr?

    In a 6-2 ruling, the Supreme Court ruled for Baker. The majority held that federal courts have the authority to decide cases that involve equal protection of the laws. 

    What was the most significant outcome of Baker v. Carr?

    Baker v. Carr helped to establish the principle of “one person – one vote” that expanded fair democratic participation and helped to protect the voting rights of minority groups. 

    How did the supreme court case Baker v. Carr change the political division?

    Baker v. Carr is a significant Supreme Court case because it gave the federal courts the authority to hear cases regarding constitutional violations that may occur when state legislatures draw district boundaries. 

    What was the majority opinion in Baker v. Carr?

    The majority held that federal courts have the authority to decide cases that involve equal protection of the laws. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What was the ruling in Baker v. Carr?

    What is the constitutional provision central to Baker v. Carr? 

    Who was Chief Justice during Baker v. Carr?

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