Wesberry v. Sanders

Decision Date17 February 1964
Docket NumberNo. 22,22
Citation84 S.Ct. 526,11 L.Ed.2d 481,376 U.S. 1
PartiesJames P. WESBERRY, Jr., et al., Appellants, v. Carl E. SANDERS, etc., et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Emmet J. Bondurant II, Atlanta, Ga., for appellants.

Frank T. Cash, Atlanta, Ga., for appellants, pro hac vice, by special leave of Court.

Paul Rodgers, Atlanta, Ga., for appellees.

Bruce J. Terris, Washington, D.C., for the United States, as amicus curiae, by special leave of Court.

Mr. Justice BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

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,1 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.' 2

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 appor- tionment 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.4 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.5 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.'6

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 Constitution7 had given Congress 'exclusive authority' to protect the right of citizens to vote for Congressmen, 8 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. Gib- bons 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'9 means that as nearly as is practicable one man's vote in a congressional election is to be worth as much as another's.10 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.11 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...

To continue reading

Request your trial
915 cases
  • City of San Jose v. Trump, No. 20-CV-05167-RRC-LHK-EMC
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Northern District of California
    • October 22, 2020
    ...the number assigned to each State should be determined solely by the number of the State's inhabitants." Wesberry v. Sanders , 376 U.S. 1, 13, 84 S.Ct. 526, 11 L.Ed.2d 481 (1964). In the debates over Article I, Section 2, the Framers recognized the distinction between the "rule of Represent......
  • Moody v. Flowers
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Middle District of Alabama
    • June 14, 1966
    ...1459, 12 L.Ed.2d 632 (1964). To the foregoing authorities dealing with legislative apportionment may be added Wesberry v. Sanders, 376 U.S. 1, 84 S.Ct. 526, 11 L.Ed.2d 481 (1964) (apportionment of congressional districts) and Gray v. Sanders, 372 U.S. 368, 83 S.Ct. 801, 9 L.Ed.2d 821 (1963)......
  • Young v. Klutznick
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Sixth Circuit
    • June 15, 1981
    ...Kirkpatrick v. Preisler, 394 U.S. 526, 527-28, 89 S.Ct. 1225, 1227, 22 L.Ed.2d 519 (1969), citing Wesberry v. Sanders, 376 U.S. 1, 7-8, 84 S.Ct. 526, 529-530, 11 L.Ed.2d 481 (1964). To achieve this goal, limited population variances from district to district will be tolerated only if these ......
  • Castañon v. United States, Civil Action No. 18-2545 Three-Judge Court (RDM, RLW, TNM)
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Columbia
    • March 12, 2020
    ...ought to be dependent on the people alone.’ " (quoting THE FEDERALIST NO. 52, at 326 (James Madison))); Wesberry v. Sanders , 376 U.S. 1, 14, 84 S.Ct. 526, 11 L.Ed.2d 481 (1964) ("The House of Represen[t]atives, the Convention agreed, was to represent the people as individuals, and on a bas......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
1 firm's commentaries
66 books & journal articles
  • The Ideology of Supreme Court Opinions and Citations
    • United States
    • Iowa Law Review No. 97-3, March 2012
    • March 1, 2012
    ...U.S. 391 (1963) Ker v. California, 374 U.S. 23 (1963) Sch. Dist. of Abington Twp., Pa. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963) Wesberry v. Sanders, 376 U.S. 1 (1964) N.Y. Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964) Griffin v. Cnty. Sch. Bd., 377 U.S. 218 (1964) Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533 (1964) ......
  • Diversity, Democracy & Pluralism: Confronting the Reality of Our Inequality
    • United States
    • Mercer University School of Law Mercer Law Reviews No. 66-3, March 2015
    • Invalid date
    ...a "critical mass" standard for determining adequate diversity of a student body in higher education).383. See, e.g., Wesberry v. Sanders, 376 U.S. 1 (1964); Baker, 369 U.S. 186 (discussing the use of the proportionate representation standard).384. See 539 U.S. at 335-36.385. See Wesberry, 3......
  • Restoring the Proper Role of the Courts in Election Law: Toward a Reinvigoration of the Political Question Doctrine
    • United States
    • The Georgetown Journal of Law & Public Policy No. 20-2, April 2022
    • April 1, 2022
    ...[https://perma.cc/M587-U584]. 34. See Gray v. Sanders, 372 U.S. 368 (1963); Wesberry v. Sanders, 376 U.S. 1 (1964). 35. See Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 558, 569 (1964). Justice Harlan’s impassioned dissent in this case echoes many of Justice Frankfurter’s concerns about courts second-guessin......
  • The Ideology of Supreme Court Opinions and Citations
    • United States
    • Iowa Law Review No. 97-3, March 2012
    • March 1, 2012
    ...U.S. 391 (1963) Ker v. California, 374 U.S. 23 (1963) Sch. Dist. of Abington Twp., Pa. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963) Wesberry v. Sanders, 376 U.S. 1 (1964) N.Y. Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964) Griffin v. Cnty. Sch. Bd., 377 U.S. 218 (1964) Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533 (1964) ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT