503 U.S. 442 (1992), 91-860, United States Department of Commerce v. Montana

Docket Nº:No. 91-860
Citation:503 U.S. 442, 112 S.Ct. 1415, 118 L.Ed.2d 87, 60 U.S.L.W. 4279
Party Name:United States Department of Commerce v. Montana
Case Date:March 31, 1992
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 442

503 U.S. 442 (1992)

112 S.Ct. 1415, 118 L.Ed.2d 87, 60 U.S.L.W. 4279

United States Department of Commerce



No. 91-860

United States Supreme Court

March 31, 1992

Argued March 4, 1992




Article I, § 2, of the Constitution requires apportionment of Representatives among the States "according to their respective Numbers." A 1941 federal statute provides that after each decennial census "the method known as the method of equal proportions" shall be used to determine the number of Representatives to which each State is entitled. Application of that method to the 1990 census caused Montana to lose one of its two seats in the House of Representatives. If it had retained both seats, each district would have been closer to the ideal size of a congressional district than the reapportioned single district. The State and several of its officials (hereinafter Montana) sued appropriate federal defendants (hereinafter the Government) in the District Court, alleging, inter alia, that the existing apportionment method violates Article I, § 2. A three-judge court, convened pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2284, granted Montana summary judgment on this claim, holding the statute unconstitutional because the variance between the single district's population and that of the ideal district could not be justified under the "one-person, one-vote" standard developed in Wesberry v. Sanders, 376 U.S. 1, and other intrastate districting cases.

Held: Congress exercised its apportionment authority within the limits dictated by the Constitution. Pp. 447-466.

(a) The general admonition in Article I, § 2, that apportionment be made "according to [the States'] respective numbers" is constrained by three constitutional requirements: the number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every 30,000 persons; each State shall have at least one Representative; and district boundaries may not cross state lines. In light of those constraints and the problem of fractional remainders -- i.e., the fractional portion of the number that results when the State's total population is divided by the population of the ideal district must either be disregarded or treated as equal to one Representative because each State must be represented by a whole number of legislators -- Congress has considered and either rejected or adopted various apportionment methods over the years, the most recent method tried being the method of equal proportions, also known as the "Hill Method." A National Academy of Sciences committee recommended that method as the fairest of the five

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methods the committee felt could lead to a workable solution to the fractional remainder problem. If Congress had chosen the method of the harmonic mean, also known as the "Dean Method," Montana would have received a second seat after the 1990 census. Pp. 447-456.

(b) This Court rejects the Government's argument that Congress' selection of any of the alternative apportionment methods presents a "political question" that is not subject to judicial review under the standards set forth in Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, 217. Significantly, the Government does not suggest that all congressional decisions relating to apportionment are beyond judicial review, but merely argues that the District Court erred in concluding that the Constitution requires the greatest possible equality in the size of congressional districts, as measured by absolute deviation from ideal district size. Thus, the controversy here turns on the proper interpretation of the relevant constitutional provisions. As in Baker itself and the apportionment cases that followed, the political question doctrine does not place this kind of constitutional interpretation outside the proper domain of the Judiciary. Pp. 456-459.

(c) Congress had ample power to enact the statutory procedure at issue and to apply the Hill Method after the 1990 census. It is by no means clear that the facts here establish [112 S.Ct. 1417] a violation of the Wesberry one-person, one-vote standard. Although Montana's evidence demonstrated that application of the Dean Method would decrease the absolute deviation from the ideal district size, it also would increase the relative difference between the ideal and the size of the districts both in Montana and in Washington, the only State that would have lost a Representative under the Dean Method. Wesberry's polestar of equal representation does not provide sufficient guidance to determine what is the better measure of inequality. Moreover, while subsequent intrastate districting cases have interpreted the Wesberry standard as imposing a burden on the States to make a good faith effort to achieve precise mathematical equality, that goal is rendered illusory for the Nation as a whole by the constraints imposed by Article I, § 2: the guarantee of a minimum of one representative for each State and the need to allocate a fixed number of indivisible Representatives among 50 States of varying populations. The constitutional framework that generated the need for a compromise between the interests of larger and smaller States must also delegate to Congress a measure of discretion broader than that accorded to the States, and Congress' apparently good faith decision to adopt the Hill Method commands far more deference, particularly as it was made after decades of experience, experimentation, and debate, was supported by independent scholars, and has been accepted for a half century. Pp. 459-466.

775 F.Supp. 1358, (D.Mont.1991), reversed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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STEVENS, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Article I, § 2, of the Constitution requires apportionment of Representatives among the several States "according to their respective Numbers."[1] An Act of Congress passed in 1941 provides that, after each decennial census, "the method known as the method of equal proportions" shall be used to determine the number of Representatives to which each State is entitled.[2] In this case, a three-judge District Court

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held that statute unconstitutional because it found that the method of equal proportions resulted in an unjustified deviation from the ideal of equal representation.[3] The Government's appeal from that holding requires us to consider the standard that governs the apportionment of Representatives among the several States. In view of the importance of the issue and its significance in this year's congressional and Presidential elections, we noted probable jurisdiction and ordered expedited briefing and argument. 502 U.S. 1012 (1991). We now reverse.


The 1990 census revealed that the population of certain States, particularly California, Florida, and Texas, had increased more rapidly than the national average. The application of the method of equal proportions to [112 S.Ct. 1418] the 1990 census caused 8 States to gain a total of 19 additional seats in the House of Representatives[4] and 13 States to lose an equal number.[5] Montana was one of those States. Its loss of one seat cut its delegation in half and precipitated this litigation.

According to the 1990 census, the population of the 50 States that elect the members of the House of Representatives is 249,022,783.[6] The average size of the 435 congressional districts is 572,466. Montana's population of 803,655 forms a single congressional district that is 231,189 persons larger than the ideal congressional district. If it had retained its two districts, each would have been 170,638 persons smaller than the ideal district. In terms of absolute

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difference, each of the two districts would have been closer to ideal size than the single congressional district.

The State of Montana, its Governor, Attorney General, and Secretary of State,[7] and the State's two Senators and Representatives (hereinafter collectively referred to as Montana) filed suit against appropriate federal defendants (the Government) in the United States District Court for the District of Montana, asserting that Montana was entitled to retain its two seats. They alleged that the existing apportionment method violates Article I, § 2, of the Constitution because it "does not achieve the greatest possible equality in the number of individuals per representative,"[8] and also violates Article I, § 2, and Article I, § 7, because reapportionment is effected

through application of a mathematical formula by the Department of Commerce and the automatic transmittal of the results to the states,[9]

rather than by legislation on which Members of Congress vote in the normal manner. A three-judge District Court, convened pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2284, granted Montana's motion for summary judgment on the first claim.[10]

The majority of the three-judge District Court decided that the principle of equal representation for equal numbers of people that was applied to intrastate districting in Wesberry v. Sanders, 376 U.S. 1 (1964), should also be applied to the apportionment of seats among the States. Under that standard, the only population variances that are acceptable are those that "are unavoidable despite a good faith effort to achieve absolute equality, or for which justification is shown," Kirkpatrick v. Preisler, 394 U.S. 526, 531 (1969). The District Court held that the variance between

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the population of Montana's single district and the ideal district could not be justified under that standard. The majority refused to accord deference to the congressional decision to adopt the method of equal proportions in 1941 because that decision was made without the benefit of this Court's later jurisprudence adopting the "one-person, one-vote" rule. Accordingly, the District Court entered a judgment declaring the statute void and enjoining the...

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