Recently, I wrote two columns about the most famous case ever tried in Tennessee, the “Monkey Trial.”
Baker v. Carr, the most important case ever to originate in our state is the subject of this article. Throughout I will refer to the Supreme Court of the United States by its informal nickname SCOTUS.
In Baker v. Carr, decided in 1962, SCOTUS set in motion legal developments which eventually required state legislatures, and later all legislative bodies, to redraw the lines of the districts, so that each member represented about the same number of constituents. In Tennessee, district lines are redrawn after each tenth year census. District populations must not vary more than ten per cent.
Years later, Chief Justice Earl Warren said that the “one-man-one-vote” case was the most important issue he decided on the bench.
The Tennessee Constitution required the General Assembly to redraw its districts every ten years shortly after completion of the federal census. The purpose is to require districts to be adjusted so that they have substantially equal population.
Charles Baker of Shelby County sued, because there had been no redistricting since 1901. Population had shifted so much, that some urban areas had 10 times as many residents in some of their districts than was the case in many rural districts. A rural citizen’s vote was worth many times as much as that of an urban resident. Senate district populations ranged from 25,000 to 132,000, so 20 of the 33 members of the state senate were elected by barely one-third of the state’s population.
Baker contended that the failure to redistrict reduced the value of his vote to such an extent that he was denied “equal protection of the law” guaranteed to him by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution.
The mayor of Nashville joined the plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed in federal court.
The defendant named in the case was Secretary of State Joe Carr. He did not draw the lines, the legislature did, but The Honorable Mr. Carr was ultimately the highest official in charge of elections.
The state argued that district lines were political questions, not judicial ones. Therefore, courts should follow the precedent set by the opinion of SCOTUS in 1946, when it held that it should not get into such a “political thicket.” Such issues must be left to the legislature.
Until the 1962 decision officials at all levels had been able to ignore laws requiring periodic reapportionments. This perpetuated rural domination in rural areas, especially in the South. And it made it ever more difficult for rising numbers of minorities in cities to elect their own to legislative bodies.
It is worth noting that two of the lawyers representing the plaintiff in Baker were prominent. Walter Chandler, of Memphis, served as city mayor twice and was a member of congress. Tommy Osborn, Nashville, became an excellent trial lawyer. Unfortunately, he represented Jimmy Hoffa, president of the Teamsters Union and ruined his career and went to prison when convicted of jury tampering. He committed suicide.
As a county attorney for decades, I helped redraw district lines for county commissioners several times. Then as a commission member, I chaired the committee which did the reapportionment just after the 2010 census. Here is how it works in most counties most of the time. We ask the help of the County Technical Assistance Service, part of the University of Tennessee. We give the service instructions on what results we want when the new plan is adopted. This includes such things as whether the number of districts will be more, fewer or the same. Also, will each district have one, two or three commissioners representing it. Our constitution allows these three options, as long as equal, or nearly equal, representation is maintained.
Many small cities, such as my hometown, Hohenwald, elect their legislative body’s members at-large and have no districts. This is fully permissible and will be upheld by the courts, as long as an at-large system does not result in preventing the election of minority members, because they are so outnumbered by the majority.
On a personal note, I like electing legislative members at-large. The practice of electing our city and county leaders from little neighborhoods is outdated and serves little purpose. The practice began in Tennessee in the 18th century when people travelled little and knew few people outside their immediate area. Today there is no reason why everyone could not know all about the qualifications of each candidate regardless of what part of the county he resides. And is there any real and significant difference between the needs and desires of voters on the east end of a county, as opposed to those on the west end? I have always believed that the wider the constituency, the better and more qualified the candidates will be.
Tennessee’s constitution requires that county commissions have at least nine, but no more than 25 members. I believe that small legislative bodies serve the people better than large ones. At least one serious and detailed study has demonstrated that the more a committee exceeds ten in number, the less effective and efficient it will operate. And, if its members are compensated, a small group will save money.
This column discusses legal issues of general interest and does not give legal advice on any reader’s personal situation. The law is not a one-size-fits-all hat. Consult a lawyer of your choice.