Elbridge Gerry is mentioned below “And the delegates defeated a motion made by Elbridge Gerry to limit the number of Representatives from newer Western States so that it would never exceed the number from the original States.”


United States Supreme Court

376 U.S. 1


 Argued: Nov. 18 and 19, 1963. — Decided: Feb 17, 1964


Appellants are citizens and qualified voters of Fulton County, Georgia, and as such are entitled to vote in congressional elections in Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District. That district, one of ten created by a 1931 Georgia statute, includes Fulton, DeKalb, and Rockdale Counties and has a population according to the 1960 census of 823,680. The average population of the ten districts is 394,312, less than half that of the Fifth. One district, the Ninth, has only 272,154 people, less than one-third as many as the Fifth. Since there is only one Congressman for each district, this inequality of population means that the Fifth District’s Congressman has to represent from two to three times as many people as do Congressmen from some of the other Georgia districts.

Claiming that these population disparities deprived them and voters similarly situated of a right under the Federal Constitution to have their votes for Congressmen given the same weight as the votes of other Georgians, the appellants brought this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1988 and 28 U.S.C. § 1343(3) asking that the Georgia statute be declared invalid and that the appellees, the Governor and Secretary of State of Georgia, be enjoined from conducting elections under it. The complaint alleged that appellants were deprived of the full benefit of their right to vote, in violation of (1) Art. I, § 2, of the Constitution of the United States, which provides that ‘The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States * * *’; (2) the Due Process, Equal Protection, and Privileges and Immunities Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment; and (3) that part of Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment which provides that ‘Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers * * *.’

The case was heard by a three-judge District Court, which found unanimously, from facts not disputed, that:

‘It is clear by any standard * * * that the population of the Fifth District is grossly out of balance with that of the other nine congressional districts of Georgia and in fact, so much so that the removal of DeKalb and Rockdale Counties from the District, leaving only Fulton with a population of 556,326, would leave it exceeding the average by slightly more than forty per cent.’ 

Notwithstanding these findings, a majority of the court dismissed the complaint, citing as their guide Mr. Justice Frankfurter’s minority opinion in Colegrove v. Green, 328 U.S. 549, 66 S.Ct. 1198, 90 L.Ed. 1432, an opinion stating that challenges to apportionment of congressional districts raised only ‘political’ questions, which were not justiciable. Although the majority below said that the dismissal here was based on ‘want of equity’ and not on nonjusticiability, they relied on no circumstances which were peculiar to the present case; instead, they adopted the language and reasoning of Mr. Justice Frankfurter’s Colegrove opinion in concluding that the appellants had presented a wholly ‘political’ question. [3] Judge Tuttle, disagreeing with the court’s reliance on that opinion, dissented from the dismissal, though he would have denied an injunction at that time in order to give the Georgia Legislature ample opportunity to correct the ‘abuses’ in the apportionment. He relied on Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, 82 S.Ct. 691, 7 L.Ed.2d 663, which, after full discussion of Colegrove and all the opinions in it, held that allegations of disparities of population in state legislative districts raise justiciable claims on which courts may grant relief. We noted probable jurisdiction. 374 U.S, 802, 83 S.Ct. 1691, 10 L.Ed.2d 1029. We agree with Judge Tuttle that in debasing the weight of appellants’ votes the State has abridged the right to vote for members of Congress guaranteed them by the United States Constitution, that the District Court should have entered a declaratory judgment to that effect, and that it was therefore error to dismiss this suit. The question of what relief should be given we leave for further consideration and decision by the District Court in light of existing circumstances.

Baker v. Carr, supra, considered a challenge to a 1901 Tennessee statute providing for apportionment of State Representatives and Senators under the State’s constitution, which called for apportionment among counties or districts ‘according to the number of qualified electors in each.’ The complaint there charged that the State’s constitutional command to apportion on the basis of the number of qualified voters had not been followed in the 1901 statute and that the districts were so discriminatorily disparate in number of qualified voters that the plaintiffs and persons similarly situated were, ‘by virtue of the debasement of their votes,’ denied the equal protection of the laws guaranteed them by the Fourteenth Amendment.  The cause there of the alleged ‘debasement’ of votes for state legislators districts containing widely varying numbers of people-was precisely that which was alleged to debase votes for Congressmen in Colegrove v. Green, supra, and in the present case. The Court in Baker pointed out that the opinion of Mr. Justice Frankfurter in Colegrove, upon the reasoning of which the majority below leaned heavily in dismissing ‘for want of equity,’ was approved by only three of the seven Justices sitting.  After full consideration of Colegrove, the Court in Baker held (1) that the District Court had jurisdiction of the subject matter; (2) that the qualified Tennessee voters there had standing to sue; and (3) that the plaintiffs had stated a justiciable cause of action on which relief could be granted.

The reasons which led to these conclusions in Baker are equally persuasive here. Indeed, as one of the grounds there relied on to support our holding that state apportionment controversies are justiciable we said:

‘* * * Smiley v. Holm, 285 U.S. 355, 52 S.Ct. 397, 76 L.Ed. 795; Koenig v. Flynn, 285 U.S. 375, 52 S.Ct. 403, 76 L.Ed. 805, and Carroll v. Becker, 285 U.S. 380, 52 S.Ct. 402, 76 L.Ed. 807, concerned the choice of Representatives in the Federal Congress. Smiley, Koenig and Carroll settled the issue in favor of justiciability of questions of congressional redistricting. The Court followed these precedents in Colegrove although over the dissent of three of the seven Justices who participated in that decision.’

This statement in Baker, which referred to our past decisions holding congressional apportionment cases to be justiciable, we believe was wholly correct and we adhere to it. Mr. Justice Frankfurter’s Colegrove opinion contended that Art. I, § 4, of the Constitution  had given Congress ‘exclusive authority’ to protect the right of citizens to vote for Congressmen, but we made it clear in Baker that nothing in the language of that article gives support to a construction that would immunize state congressional apportionment laws which debase a citizen’s right to vote from the power of courts to protect the constitutional rights of individuals from legislative destruction, a power recognized at least since our decision in Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137, 2 L.Ed. 60, in 1803. Cf. Gibbons v. Ogden, 9 Wheat. 1, 6 L.Ed. 23. The right to vote is too important in our free society to be stripped of judicial protection by such an interpretation of Article I. This dismi sal can no more be justified on the ground of ‘want of equity’ than on the ground of ‘non-justiciability.’ We therefore hold that the District Court erred in dismissing the complaint.

This brings us to the merits. We agree with the District Court that the 1931 Georgia apportionment grossly discriminates against voters in the Fifth Congressional District. A single Congressman represents from two to three times as many Fifth District voters as are represented by each of the Congressmen from the other Georgia congressional districts. The apportionment statute thus contracts the value of some votes and expands that of others. If the Federal Constitution intends that when qualified voters elect members of Congress each vote be given as much weight as any other vote, then this statute cannot stand.

We hold that, construed in its historical context, the command of Art. I, § 2, that Representatives be chosen ‘by the People of the several States’  means that as nearly as is practicable one man’s vote in a congressional election is to be worth as much as another’s. This rule is followed automatically, of course, when Representatives are chosen as a group on a statewide basis, as was a widespread practice in the first 50 years of our Nation’s history.  It would be extraordinary to suggest that in such statewide elections the votes of inhabitants of some parts of a State, for example, Georgia’s thinly populated Ninth District, could be weighted at two or three times the value of the votes of people living in more populous parts of the State, for example, the Fifth District around Atlanta. Cf. Gray v. Sanders, 372 U.S. 368, 83 S.Ct. 801, 9 L.Ed.2d 821. We do not believe that the Framers of the Constitution intended to permit the same vote-diluting discrimination to be accomplished through the device of districts containing widely varied numbers of inhabitants. To say that a vote is worth more in one district than in another would not only run counter to our fundamental ideas of democratic government, it would cast aside the principle of a House of Representatives elected ‘by the People,’ a principle tenaciously fought for and established at the Constitutional Convention. The history of the Constitution, particularly that part of it relating to the adoption of Art. I, § 2, reveals that those who framed the Constitution meant that, no matter what the mechanics of an election, whether statewide or by districts, it was population which was to be the basis of the House of Representatives.

During the Revolutionary War the rebelling colonies were loosely allied in the Continental Congress, a body with authority to do little more than pass resolutions and issue requests for men and supplies. Before the war ended the Congress had proposed and secured the ratification by the States of a somewhat closer association under the Articles of Confederation. Though the Articles established a central government for the United States, as the former colonies were even then called, the States retained most of their sovereignty, like independent nations bound together only by treaties. There were no separate judicial or executive branches: only a Congress consisting of a single house. Like the members of an ancient Greek league, each State, without regard to size or population, was given only one vote in that house. It soon became clear that the Confederation was without adequate power to collect needed revenues or to enforce the rules its Congress adopted. Farsighted men felt that a closer union was necessary if the States were to be saved from foreign and domestic dangers.

The result was the Constitutional Convention of 1787, called for ‘the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation * * *’  When the Convention met in May, this modest purpose was soon abandoned for the greater challenge of creating a new and closer form of government than was possible under the Confederation. Soon after the Convention assembled, Edmund Randolph of Virginia presented a plan not merely to amend the Articles of Confederation but to create an entirely new National Government with a National Executive, National Judiciary, and a National Legislature of two Houses, one house to be elected by ‘the people,’ the second house to be elected by the first. 

The question of how the legislature should be constituted precipitated the most bitter controversy of the Convention. One principle was uppermost in the minds of many delegates: that, no matter where he lived, each voter should have a voice equal to that of every other in electing members of Congress. In support of this principle, George Mason of Virginia

‘argued strongly for an election of the larger branch by the people. It was to be the grand depository of the democratic principle of the Govt.’ 

James Madison agreed, saying ‘If the power is not immediately derived from the people, in proportion to their numbers, we may make a paper confederacy, but that will be all.’  Repeatedly, delegates rose to make the same point: that it would be unfair, unjust, and contrary to common sense to give a small number of people as many Senators or Representatives as were allowed to much larger groups -in short, as James Wilson of Pennsylvania put it, ‘equal numbers of people ought to have an equal no. of representatives * * *’ and representatives ‘of different districts ought clearly to hold the same proportion to each other, as their respective constituents hold to each other.’

Some delegates opposed election by the people. The sharpest objection arose out of the fear on the part of small States like Delaware that if population were to be the only basis of representation the populous States like Virginia would elect a large enough number of representatives to wield overwhelming power in the National Government. Arguing that the Convention had no authority to depart from the plan of the Articles of Confederation which gave each State an equal vote in the National Congress, William Paterson of New Jersey said, ‘If the sovereignty of the States is to be maintained, the Representatives must be drawn immediately from the States, not from the people: and we have no power to vary the idea of equal sovereignty.’ To this end he proposed a single legislative chamber in which each State, as in the Confederation, was to have an equal vote.  A number of delegates supported this plan. 

The delegates who wanted every man’s vote to count alike were sharp in their criticism of giving each State, regardless of population, the same voice in the National Legislature. Madison entreated the Convention ‘to renounce a principle wch. was confessedly unjust,’  and Rufus King of Massachusetts ‘was prepared for every event, rather than sit down under a Govt. founded in a vicious principle of representation and which must be as shortlived as it would be unjust.’ 

The dispute came near ending the Convention without a Constitution. Both sides seemed for a time to be hopelessly obstinate. Some delegations threatened to withdraw from the Convention if they did not get their way. Seeing the controversy growing sharper and emotions rising, the wise and highly respected Benjamin Franklin arose and pleaded with the delegates on both sides to ‘part with some of their demands, in order that they may join in some accomodating proposition.’ At last those who supported representation of the people in both houses and those who supported it in neither were brought together, some expressing the fear that if they did not reconcile their differences, ‘some foreign sword will probably do the work for us.’  The deadlock was finally broken when a majority of the States agreed to what has been called the Great Compromise, based on a proposal which had been repeatedly advanced by Roger Sherman and other delegates from Connecticut.  It provided on the one hand that each State, including little Delaware and Rhode Island, was to have two Senators. As a further guarantee that these Senators would be considered state emissaries, they were to be elected by the state legislatures, Art. I, § 3, and it was specially provided in Article V that no State should ever be deprived of its equal representatio in the Senate. The other side of the compromise was that, as provided in Art. I, § 2, members of the House of Representatives should be chosen ‘by the People of the several States’ and should be ‘apportioned among the several States * * * according to their respective Numbers.’ While those who wanted both houses to represent the people had yielded on the Senate, they had not yielded on the House of Representatives. William Samuel Johnson of Connecticut had summed it up well: ‘in one branch the people, ought to be represented; in the other, the States.’ 

The debates at the Convention make at least one fact abundantly clear: that when the delegates agreed that the House should represent ‘people’ they intended that in allocating Congressmen the number assigned to each State should be determined solely by the number of the State’s inhabitants.  The Constitution embodied Edmund Randolph’s proposal for a periodic census to ensure ‘fair representation of the people,’ an idea endorsed by Mason as assuring that ‘numbers of inhabitants’ should always be the measure of representation in the House of Representatives.  The Convention also overwhelmingly agreed to a resolution offered by Randolph to base future apportionment squarely on numbers and to delete any reference to wealth. And the delegates defeated a motion made by Elbridge Gerry to limit the number of Representatives from newer Western States so that it would never exceed the number from the original States. 

It would defeat the principle solemnly embodied in the Great Compromise-equal representation in the House for equal numbers of people-for us to hold that, within the States, legislatures may draw the lines of congressional districts in such a way as to give some voters a greater voice in choosing a Congressman than others. The House of Represenatives, the Convention agreed, was to represent the people as individuals, and on a basis of complete equality for each voter. The delegates were quite aware of what Madison called the ‘vicious representation’ in Great Britain whereby ‘rotten boroughs’ with few inhabitants were represented in Parliament on or almost on a par with cities of greater population. Wilson urged that people must be repre ented as individuals, so that America would escape the evils of the English system under which one man could send two members of Parliament to represent the borough of Old Sarum while London’s million people sent but four.  The delegates referred to rotten borough apportionments in some of the state legislatures as the kind of objectionable governmental action that the Constitution should not tolerate in the election of congressional representatives.

Madison in The Federalist described the system of division of States into congressional districts, the method which he and others  assumed States probably would adopt: ‘The city of Philadelphia is supposed to contain between fifty and sixty thousand souls. It will therefore form nearly two districts for the choice of Federal Representatives.’  ‘(N)umbers,’ he said, not only are a suitable way to represent wealth but in any event ‘are the only proper scale of representation.’ In the state conventions, speakers urging ratification of the Constitution emphasized the theme of equal representation in the House which had permeated the debates in Philadelphia.  Charles Cotesworth Pinckney told the South Carolina Convention, ‘the House of Representatives will be elected immediately by the people, and represent them and their personal rights individually * * *.’  Speakers at the ratifying conventions emphasized that the House of Representatives was meant to be free of the malapportionment then existing in some of the State legislatures-such as those of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and South Carolina-and argued that the power given Congress in Art. I, § 4,  was meant to be used to vindicate the people’s right to equality of representation in the House. Congress’ power, said John Steele at the North Carolina convention, was not to be used to allow Congress to create rotten boroughs; in answer to another delegate’s suggestion that Congress might use its power to favor people living near the seacoast, Steele said that Congress ‘most probably’ would ‘lay the state off into districts,’ and if it made laws ‘inconsistent with the Constitution, independent judges will not uphold them, nor will the people obey them.’ 

Soon after the Constitution was adopted, James Wilson of Pennsylvania, by then an Associate Justice of this Court, gave a series of lectures at Philadelphia in which, drawing on his experience as one of the most active members of the Constitutional Convention, he said:

‘(A)ll elections ought to be equal. Elections are equal, when a given number of citizens, in one part of the state, choose as many representatives, as are chosen by the same number of citizens, in any other part of the state. In this manner, the proportion of the representatives and of the constituents will remain invariably the same.’ 

It is in the light of such history that we must construe Art. I, § 2, of the Constitution, which, carrying out the ideas of Madison and those of like views, provides that Representatives shall be chosen ‘by the People of the several States’ and shall be ‘apportioned among the several States * * * according to their respective Numbers.’ It is not surprising that our Court has held that this Article gives persons qualified to vote a constitutional right to vote and to have their votes counted. United States v. Mosley, 238 U.S. 383, 35 S.Ct. 904, 59 L.Ed. 1355; Ex parte Yarbrough, 110 U.S. 651, 4 S.Ct. 152, 28 L.Ed. 274. Not only can this right to vote not be denied outright, it cannot, consistently with Article I, be destroyed by alteration of ballots, see United States v. Classic,313 U.S. 299, 61 S.Ct. 1031, 85 L.Ed. 1368, or diluted by stuffing of the ballot box, see United States v. Saylor, 322 U.S. 385, 64 S.Ct. 1101, 88 L.Ed. 1341. No right is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which, as good citizens, we must live. Other rights, even the most basic, are illusory if the right to vote is undermined. Our Constitution leaves no room for classification of people in a way that unnecessarily abridges this right. In urging the people to adopt the Constitution, Madison said in No. 57 of The Federalist:

‘Who are to be the electors of the Federal Representatives? Not the rich more than the poor; not the learned more than the ignorant; not the haughty heirs of distinguished names, more than the humble sons of obscure and unpropitious fortune. The electors are to be the great body of the people of the United States. * * *’ 

Readers surely could have fairly taken this to mean, ‘one person, one vote.’ Cf. Gray v. Sanders, 372 U.S. 368, 381, 83 S.Ct. 801, 809, 9 L.Ed.2d 821.

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 for the House of Representatives. That is the high standard of justice and common sense which the Founders set for us.

Reversed and remanded.