Whitcomb v. Chavis

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation403 U.S. 124,91 S.Ct. 1858,29 L.Ed.2d 363
Docket NumberNo. 92,92
PartiesEdgar D. WHITCOMB, Governor of the State of Indiana, Appellant, v. Patrick CHAVIS et al
Decision Date07 June 1971

This suit was brought by residents of Marion and Lake Counties, Indiana, challenging state statutes establishing Marion County as a multi-member district for the election of state senators and representatives. It was alleged, first, that the laws invidiously diluted the votes of Negroes and poor persons living in the 'ghetto area' of Marion County, and second, that voters in multimember districts were overrepresented since the true test of voting power is the ability to cast a tie-breaking vote, and the voters in multi-member districts had a greater theoretical opportunity to cast such votes than voters in singlemember districts. The tendency of multi-member district legislators to vote as a bloc was alleged to compound this discrimination. The three-judge court, though not ruling squarely on the second claim, determined that a racial minority group with specific legislative interests inhabited a ghetto area in Indianapolis, in Marion County; that the statutes operated to minimize and cancel out the voting strength of this minority group; and that redistricting Marion County alone would leave impermissible variations between Marion districts and others in the State, thus requiring statewide redistricting, which could not await 1970 census figures. The court held the statutes unconstitutional, and gave the State until October 1, 1969, to enact reapportionment legislation. No such legislation ensued, and the court drafted a plan using single-member districts throughout the State. The 1970 elections were ordered to be held in accordance with the new plan. This Court granted a stay of judgment pending final action on the appeal, thus permitting the 1970 elections to be held under the condemned statutes. Under those statutes, based on the 1960 census, there was a maximum variance in population of senate districts of 28.20%, with a ratio between the largest and smallest districts of 1.327 to 1, and a maximum variance in house districts of 24.78%, with a ratio of 1.279 to 1. Held:

The judgment is reversed and the case remanded. 305 F.Supp. 1364, reversed and remanded.

Mr. Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I—VI, finding that:

1. Although, as the Court was advised on June 1, 1971, the Indiana legislature enacted new apportionment legislation providing for state-wide single-member house and senate districts, the case is not moot. Pp. 140—141.

2. The validity of multi-member districts is justiciable, but a challenger has the burden of proving that such districts unconstitutionally operate to dilute or cancel the voting strength of racial or political groups. Pp. 141—144.

3. The actual, as distinguished from theoretical, impact of multi-member districts on individual voting power has not been sufficiently demonstrated on this record to warrant departure from prior cases involving multi-member districts, and neither the findings below nor the record sustains the view that multi-member districts overrepresent their voters as compared with voters in single-member districts, even if the multi-member legislative delegation tends to bloc voting. Pp. 144—148.

4. Appellees' claim that the fact that the number of ghetto residents who were legislators was not proportionate to ghetto population proves invidious discrimination, notwithstanding the absence of evidence that ghetto residents had less opportunity to participate in the political process, is not valid, and on this record the malproportion was due to the ghetto voters' choices losing the election contests. Pp. 148—155.

5. The trial court's conclusion that, with respect to their unique interests, ghetto residents were invidiously underrepresented due to lack of their own legislative voice, was not supported by the findings. Moreover, even assuming bloc voting by the county delegation contrary to the ghetto majority's wishes, there is no constitutional violation, since that situation inheres in the political process, whether the district be single- or multi-member. P. 155.

6. Multi-member districts have not been proved inherently invidious or violative of equal protection, but, even assuming their unconstitutionality, it is not clear that the remedy is a single-member system with lines drawn to ensure representation to all sizable racial, ethnic, economic, or religious groups. Pp. 156 160.

7. The District Court erred in brushing aside the entire state apportionment policy without solid constitutional and equitable grounds for doing so, and without considering more limited alternatives. Pp. 160—161.

Mr. Justice WHITE, joined by The Chief Justice, Mr. Justice BLACK, and Mr. Justice BLACKMUN, concluded, in Part VII, that it was not improper for the District Court to order state-wide redistricting on the basis of the excessive population variances between the legislative districts shown by this record. That court ordered reapportionment not because of population shifts since its 1965 decision upholding the statutory plan but because the disparties had been shown to be excessive by intervening decisions of this Court. Pp. 179—180.

Mr. Justice DOUGLAS, joined by Mr. Justice BRENNAN and Mr. Justice MARSHALL, concluded, with respect to redistricting the entire State, that there were impermissible population variances between districts under the current apportionment plan, and that the new Marion County districts would also have impermissible variances, thus requiring state-wide redistricting. Pp. 179—180.

William F. Thompson, Indianapolis, Ind., for appellant.

James Manahan, Indianapolis, Ind., for appellees.

Mr. Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to the validity of the multi-member election district in Marion County, Indiana (Parts I—VI), together with an opinion (Part VII), in which THE CHIEF JUSTICE, Mr. Justice BLACK, and Mr. Justice BLACKMUN joined on the propriety of ordering redistricting of the entire State of Indiana, and announced the judgment of the Court.

We have before us in this case the validity under the Equal Protection Clause of the statutes districting and apportioning the State of Indiana for its general assembly elections. The principal issue centers on those provisions constituting Marion County, which includes the city of Indianapolis, a multi-member district for electing state senators and representatives.


Indiana has a bicameral general assembly consisting of a house of representatives of 100 members and a senate of 50 members. Eight of the 31 senatorial districts and 25 of the 39 house districts are multi-member districts, that is, districts that are represented by two or more legislators elected at large by the voters of the district.1 Under the statutes here challenged, Marion County is a multi-member district electing eight senators and 15 members of the house.

On January 9, 1969, six residents of Indiana, five of whom were residents of Marion County, filed a suit described by them as 'attacking the constitutionality of two statutes of the State of Indiana which provide for multi-member districting at large of General Assembly seats in Marion County, Indiana * * *.'2 Plaintiffs3 Chavis, Ramsey, and Bryant alleged that the two statutes invidiously diluted the force and effect of the vote of Negroes and poor persons living within certain Marion County census tracts constituting what was termed 'the ghetto area.' Residents of the area were alleged to have particular demographic characteristics rendering them cognizable as a minority interest group with distinctive interests in specific areas of the substantive law. With single-member districting, it was said, the ghetto area would elect three members of the house and one senator, whereas under the present districting voters in the area 'have almost no political force or control over legislators because the effect of their vote is cancelled out by other contrary interest groups' in Marion County. The mechanism of political party organization and the influence of party chairmen in nominating candidates were additional factors alleged to frustrate the exercise of power by residents of the ghetto area.

Plaintiff Walker, a Negro resident of Lake County, also a multi-member district but a smaller one, alleged an invidious discrimination against Lake County Negroes because Marion County Negroes, although no greater in number than Lake County Negroes, had the opportunity to influence the election of more legislators than Lake County Negroes.4 The claim was that Marion County was one-third larger in population and thus had approximately one-third more assembly seats than Lake County, but that voter influence does not vary inversely with population and that permitting Marion County voters to elect 23 assemblymen at large gave them a disproportionate advantage over voters in Lake County.5 The two remaining plaintiffs presented claims not at issue here. 6

A three-judge court convened and tried the case on June 17 and 18, 1969. Both documentary evidence and oral testimony were taken concerning the composition and characteristics of the alleged ghetto area, the manner in which legislative candidates were chosen and their residence and tenure, and the performance of Marion County's delegation in the Indiana general assembly.7

The three-judge court filed its opinion containing its findings and conclusions on July 28, 1969, holding for plaintiffs. Chavis v. Whitcomb, 305 F.Supp. 1364 (SD Ind.1969). See also 305 F.Supp. 1359 (1969) (pre-trial orders) and 307 F.Supp. 1362 (1969) (statewide reapportionment plan and implementing order). In sum, it concluded that Marion County's multi-member district must be disestablished and, because of population disparities not directly related to the phenomena alleged in the complaint, the entire State must be...

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