Wesberry v. Sanders

Following is the case brief for Wesberry v. Sanders, 376 U.S. 1 (1964)

Case Summary of Wesberry v. Sanders:

  • Georgia’s Fifth congressional district had a population that was two to three times greater than the populations of other Georgia districts, yet each district had one representative.
  • Voters in the Fifth district sued the Governor and Secretary of State of Georgia, seeking to invalidate Georgia’s apportionment structure because their votes were given less weight compared to voters in other districts.
  • Georgia’s District Court denied relief.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case, holding that congressional districts should have equal population to the extent possible.

Wesberry v. Sanders Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

Georgia’s Fifth congressional district had two to three times more voters compared to other Georgia districts.  Yet, each Georgia district was represented by one congressperson in the House of Representatives.  Accordingly, those Fifth district voters believed that their political voice was less, or “debased,” when compared to other voters in Georgia.

The Fifth district voters sued the Governor and Secretary of State of Georgia, seeking a declaration that Georgia’s 1931 apportionment statute was invalid, and that the State should be enjoined from conducting elections under the statute.  The voters alleged that the apportionment scheme violated several provisions of the Constitution, including Art I, sec 2. and the Fourteenth Amendment.

Procedural History:

  • A three-judge panel of the District Court recognized the huge disparity in population between the Fifth district and other congressional districts. However, a majority of the panel denied relief, finding that the “political” question raised by the Fifth district voters should be dismissed for “want of equity.”
  • One of the three judges on the panel dissented from the result.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged probable jurisdiction.

Issue and Holding:

Did Georgia’s apportionment statute violate the Constitution by allowing for large differences in population between districts even though each district had one representative?  Yes.

Judgment:

The decision of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia is reversed and remanded.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

Federal congressional districts must be roughly equal in population to the extent possible.

Reasoning:

The District Court was wrong to find that the Fifth district voters presented a purely “political” question which could not be decided by a court, and should be dismissed for “want of equity.”  Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, supports the principle that voters have standing to sue with regard to apportionment matters, and that such claims are justiciable.

Most importantly, the history of how the House of Representatives came into being demonstrates that the founders wanted to ensure that each person had an equal voice in the political process in the House of Representatives.  That right is based in Art I, sec. 2 of the Constitution, which states that Representatives be chosen “by the People of the several States.”  Allowing for huge disparities in population between districts would violate that fundamental principle.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring Opinion (Clark):

While the majority is correct that congressional districting is something that courts can decide, the case should be remanded so the lower court can hold a hearing on the merits based on the standards provided in Baker v Carr.

Dissenting Opinion (Harlan):

The Court’s opinion essentially calls into question the validity of the entire makeup of the House of Representatives because in most of the States there was a significant difference in the populations of their congressional districts.  Further, it goes beyond the province of the Court to decide this case.  The Constitution does not call for equal sized districts, and therefore there is no constitutional right at stake.

Dissenting Opinion (Stewart):

The Court does have the power to decide this case, in contrast to Justice Harlan’s dissent.  However, Art. I, sec. 2 of the Constitution does not mandate that congressional districts must be equal in population.

Significance:

Wesberry v. Sanders is a landmark case because it mandated that congressional districts throughout the country must be roughly equal in population.  This decision, coupled with the “one person, one vote” opinions decided around the same time, had a massive impact on the makeup of the House of Representatives and on electoral politics in general.  The one thing that “one person, one vote” decisions could not effect was the use of gerrymandering.

Student Resources:

Read the Court Opinion

Listen to the Oral Arguments

 

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