Baker v. Carr

Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186 ( 1962 ), examined whether or not legislative apportionment issues can be remedied by federal courts. Apportionment is the process of allocating legislative seats proportionally based on population data. Article III of the US Constitution states that federal judicial power extends to “all cases … and … controversies.” Throughout American history, political questions have been considered inappropriate subject matter for judicial intervention, and thus nonjusticiable issues. Political questions are constitutional issues understood by the US Supreme Court to be solely within the spheres of power of a coordinate branch of the federal government. The federal judiciary is prohibited from providing legal remedies on such topics. Baker v. Carr is important in American constitutional development because it expands the jurisdiction of federal courts under Article III by redefining the Court' s understanding of the political question doctrine.

In 1901, the state of Tennessee passed the Apportionment Act, which required seats for its state' s General Assembly to be reapportioned every ten years to reflect population shifts. Charles W. Baker and other citizens from Tennessee brought suit, alleging that the Tennessee General Assembly ignored the apportionment law and had not reapportioned the state legislature for over sixty years. Between 1901 and 1960, Baker argued that substantial population growth and population redistribution had taken place in Tennessee, causing the debasement of many citizens' votes.

The US district court dismissed this case based on the 1946 precedent of Colegrove v. Green, 328 U.S. 549. The plaintiffs in Colegrove asserted that malapportionment in Illinois congressional districts was an unconstitutional violation of Article IV, Section 4' s guarantee clause, which holds that the US government shall guarantee every state in the Union a republican form of government. Historically, federal courts have declined to rule on guarantee clause protections, since the subject matter has been considered an inappropriate, political question for courts. The Colegrove decision reaffirmed this limit on federal jurisdiction and ruled that legislative apportionment issues could not be remedied by federal courts, since guarantee clause violations should be remedied by the political process.

In Baker, the plaintiffs did not challenge the reapportionment issue under the guarantee clause. Instead, they argued that the debasement of their votes, due to malapportionment, violated their individual right to equal protection of law under the Fourteenth Amendment. The state of Tennessee, on the other hand, argued that Colegrove had already determined that federal courts did not have jurisdiction in reapportionment issues, since it was a political question.

1906–1997 ) wrote: “The mere fact that the suit seeks protection of a political right does not mean it presents a political question” and is therefore nonjusticiable (369 U.S. at 209).

Brennan listed issues that traditionally are considered political questions, and therefore, nonjusticiable by the federal courts. Such issues included: (1) questions dealing with foreign relations; (2) questions concerning dates of duration of hostilities; (3) questions of the validity of enactments; (4) questions concerning the status of Indian tribes; and (5) questions dealing with guarantee clause claims for a republican form of government.

Nevertheless, Brennan explained that circumstances could arise that would make it possible for these traditional political questions to become legal questions to be remedied by the federal courts. Such circumstances come about when a person' s individual rights are violated by the government and there is no other government institution that could provide an individual remedy. When this occurs, issues that at first glance appear to be political questions become legal questions, and thus, federal courts not only have a right but also have a responsibility to decide such cases. In this case, Brennan explained that Baker' s individual right to equality of the vote, which was protected by the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, was being denied by the state of Tennessee. Brennan noted that historically, federal courts have provided legal remedies in equal protection clause issues, and that the standards for which the federal judiciary could remedy such issues were “well developed and familiar.” Likewise, he noted that it has been “open to the court” to determine if a state action is “arbitrary and capricious” since the enactment of the Fourteenth Amendment (369 U.S. at 226). Consequently, this denial of an individual right created a legal question in which federal courts could provide a remedy.

Furthermore, Brennan emphasized that a nonjusticiable, political question was “primarily a function of the separation of powers” (369 U.S. at 211). When the US Constitution explicitly grants a power to a coordinate branch of government, then federal courts lack authority to interfere in the coordinate branch' s sphere of power. Brennan pointed out, however, that Baker did not raise separation-of-powers issues, but instead, dealt with the relationship between the federal judiciary and the states.

Justice John Harlan ( 1899–1971 ), along with Justice Felix Frankfurter ( 1882–1965 ), dissented in this case. They argued that, as in Colegrove, the reapportionment issue in this case was nonjusticiable. The fact that the plaintiffs in Baker challenged the apportionment issue under the Fourteenth Amendment rather than the guarantee clause did not suddenly make the case justiciable. Harlan wrote that the Baker case “is, in effect, a Guarantee Clause claim masquerading under a different label” (369 U.S. at 297).

Moreover, the dissent argued that the Court' s majority appeared to be advancing their personal policy preferences for the concept of “one person, one vote” rather than upholding the historical understanding of represen tative government. Harlan wrote that it was “not true” that the Fourteenth Amendment required an equality of vote between person and person as a “basic principle of representative government,” noting that such a conception “has never been generally practiced, today or in the past” ( 369 U.S. at 301–302 ).

Two years later, in Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533 ( 1964 ), the Court reaffirmed that reapportionment is a justiciable controversy for federal courts. In an eight-toone ruling, the Court specifically addressed the principle of “one person, one vote,” ruling that it was guaranteed under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Baker v. Carr is important in American constitutional development because it expands the jurisdiction of federal courts under Article III of the US Constitution by ruling that legislative apportionment is, in fact, a valid legal question that can be remedied by federal courts. While supporters hailed the ruling in Baker for its importance in safeguarding individual rights, the case has also been a source of criticism. Critics accused the Court of judicial activism. They argued that the majority in Baker broadened their understanding of the political question doctrine in order to advance their personal beliefs on equality rather than upholding the historical understanding of the doctrine.

Likewise, while Article III places limits on the jurisdiction of federal courts, it is important to remember that these limitations are defined and interpreted by the Court itself. Both liberals and conservatives have chastised the Court at different points in history for manipulating the limits placed on its jurisdiction. Baker v. Carr is simply one of many cases that showcase how easy it is for federal courts to alter their understanding of the limits placed on their jurisdiction.

SEE ALSO Federal Court Jurisdiction ; Reapportionment ; Reynolds v. Sims.


Hasen, Richard L. The Supreme Court and Election Law: Judging Equality from Baker v. Carr to Bush v. Gore. New York: New York University Press, 2003.

Linder, Doug. “Constitutional Limitations on the Judicial Power: The Political Questions Doctrine.” Exploring Constitutional Law. University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law. .

Mourtada-Sabbah, Nada, and Bruce E. Cain, eds. The Political Question Doctrine and the Supreme Court of the United States. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2007.

Francene M. Engel
University of Maryland