Davis v. Bandemer

478 U.S. 109

Case Year: 1986

Case Ruling: 7-2, Reversed

Opinion Justice: White

More Information

Concurring Opinions

Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Blackmun, Brennan, Burger, Marshall, O'Connor, Rehnquist


1st Concurring Opinion

Author: Burger


1st Dissenting Opinion

Author: Powell in Part


2nd Concurring Opinion

Author: O'Connor


2nd Dissenting Opinion

Author: Stevens


3rd Concurring Opinion

Author: Powell in Part


3rd Dissenting Opinion



Other Concurring Opinions:


Davis v. Bandemer brought to the Supreme Court's doorstep the question of constitutional protections for minority political parties. A number of issues confronted the justices. Should the courts even rule on the issue, or should the justices leave these controversies to the political process? If the courts became involved in such cases, what criteria should be used to determine if a political party has been the victim of discrimination? These questions involve not only issues of justice, but also of the proper role of the courts in the internal political battles of the legislative branch.

This suit challenged the 1981 reapportionment of the Indiana General Assembly, a bicameral state legislature with fifty seats in the Senate and one hundred in the House. At the time of reapportionment, a Republican was governor, and the party controlled both houses of the legislature. The redistricting plan called for seven triple-member, nine double-member, and sixty-one single-member constituencies for the House and fifty single-member Senate districts. Population disparities were minimal and easily within the range normally accepted by the Supreme Court for state legislatures.

In early 1982 Irwin Bandemer and other Indiana Democrats filed suit against various state officials contending that the district lines and the mix of single-member and multimember districts were intended to and had the effect of violating the equal protection rights of Democratic voters. Before this suit went to trial, elections were held under the reapportionment plan. Democratic candidates received 51.9 percent of the statewide votes for the House, but captured only 43 of the 100 seats. For the twenty-five Senate seats up for election, Democrats gained 53.1 percent of the votes and won thirteen of the seats. In the multimember House districts of Marion and Allen counties, Democrats received 46.6 percent of the ballots, but won only three of twenty-one seats. A divided three-judge district court ruled in favor of the Democratic plaintiffs. The court concluded that the reapportionment plan was based on an intentional effort to favor Republican candidates and to disadvantage Democratic voters. The plan "stacked" Democrats into districts with large Democratic majorities and split them in other districts so as to give Republicans safe but not excessive majorities. The district court found the reapportionment statute in violation of the equal protection clause and invalidated it. The state officials appealed.

The Supreme Court was confronted with two important questions. First, does political gerrymandering constitute a justiciable issue, or should decisions about districting based purely on political factors remain with the political branches of government? Second, if political gerrymandering is a justiciable issue, does the reapportionment plan challenged here violate the Equal Protection Clause?



We address first the question whether this case presents a justiciable controversy or a nonjusticiable political question . . . . The appellees urge that this Court has in the past acknowledged and acted upon the justiciability of purely political gerrymandering claims. The appellants contend that we have affirmed on the merits decisions of lower courts finding such claims to be nonjusticiable.

Since Baker v. Carr (1962), we have consistently adjudicated equal protection claims in the legislative districting context regarding inequalities in population between districts. In the course of these cases, we have developed and enforced the "one person, one vote" principle . . . .

The issue here is of course different from that adjudicated in Reynolds [ v. Sims]. It does not concern districts of unequal size. Not only does everyone have the right to vote and to have his vote counted, but each elector may vote for and be represented by the same number of lawmakers. Rather, the claim is that each political group in a State should have the same chance to elect representatives of its choice as any other political group. Nevertheless, the issue is one of representation, and we decline to hold that such claims are never justiciable.

Our racial gerrymander cases such as White v. Regester and Whitcomb v. Chavis indicate as much. In those cases, there was no population variation among the districts, and no one was precluded from voting. The claim instead was that an identifiable racial or ethnic group had an insufficient chance to elect a representative of its choice and that district lines should be redrawn to remedy this alleged defect. In both cases, we adjudicated the merits of such claims, rejecting the claim in Whitcomb and sustaining it in Regester. Just as clearly, in Gaffney v. Cummings, where the districts also passed muster under the Reynolds formula, the claim was that the legislature had manipulated district lines to afford political groups in various districts an enhanced opportunity to elect legislators of their choice. Although advising caution, we said that "we must . . . respond to [the] claims . . . that even if acceptable populationwise, the . . . plan was invidiously discriminatory because a 'political fairness principle' was followed . . . ." We went on to hold that the statute at issue did not violate the Equal Protection Clause. These decisions support a conclusion that this case is justiciable. As Gaffneydemonstrates, that the claim is submitted by a political group rather than a racial group, does not distinguish it in terms of justiciability. That the characteristics of the complaining group are not immutable or that the group has not been subject to the same historical stigma may be relevant to the manner in which the case is adjudicated, but these differences do not justify a refusal to entertain such a case . . . .

Having determined that the political gerrymandering claim in this case is justiciable, we turn to the question whether the District Court erred in holding that the appellees had alleged and proved a violation of the Equal Protection Clause . . . .

We do not accept . . . the District Court's legal and factual bases for concluding that the 1981 Act visited a sufficiently adverse effect on the appellees' constitutionally protected rights to make out a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. The District Court held that because any apportionment scheme that purposely prevents proportional representation is unconstitutional, Democratic voters need only show that their proportionate voting influence has been adversely affected. Our cases, however, clearly foreclose any claim that the Constitution requires proportional representation or that legislatures in reapportioning must draw district lines to come as near as possible to allocating seats to the contending parties in proportion to what their anticipated statewide vote will be.

The typical election for legislative seats in the United States is conducted in described geographical districts, with the candidate receiving the most votes in each district winning the seat allocated to that district. If all or most of the districts are competitive--defined by the District Court in this case as districts in which the anticipated split in the party vote is within the range of 45% to 55%--even a narrow statewide preference for either party would produce an overwhelming majority for the winning party in the state legislature. This consequence, however, is inherent in winner-take-all, district-based elections, and we cannot hold that such a reapportionment law would violate the Equal Protection Clause because the voters in the losing party do not have representation in the legislature in proportion to the statewide vote received by their party candidates. As we have said: "[W]e are unprepared to hold that district-based elections decided by plurality vote are unconstitutional in either single or multimember districts simply because the supporters of losing candidates have no legislative seats assigned to them." Whitcomb v. Chavis. This is true of a racial as well as a political group. It is also true of a statewide claim as well as an individual district claim . . . . In cases involving individual multimember districts, we have required a substantially greater showing of adverse effects than a mere lack of proportional representation to support a finding of unconstitutional vote dilution. Only where there is evidence that excluded groups have "less opportunity to participate in the political processes and to elect candidates of their choice" have we refused to approve the use of multimember districts. In these cases, we have also noted the lack of responsiveness of those elected to the concerns of the relevant groups.

These holdings rest on a conviction that the mere fact that a particular apportionment scheme makes it more difficult for a particular group in a particular district to elect the representatives of its choice does not render that scheme constitutionally infirm. The conviction, in turn, stems from a perception that the power to influence the political process is not limited to winning elections. An individual or a group of individuals who votes for a losing candidate is usually deemed to be adequately represented by the winning candidate and to have as much opportunity to influence that candidate as other voters in the district. We cannot presume in such a situation, without actual proof to the contrary, that the candidate elected will entirely ignore the interests of those voters. This is true even in a safe district where the losing group loses election after election. Thus, a group's electoral power is not unconstitutionally diminished by the simple fact of an apportionment scheme that makes winning elections more difficult, and a failure of proportional representation alone does not constitute impermissible discrimination under the Equal Protection Clause.

As with individual districts, where unconstitutional vote dilution is alleged in the form of statewide political gerrymandering, the mere lack of proportional representation will not be sufficient to prove unconstitutional discrimination. Again, without specific supporting evidence, a court cannot presume in such a case that those who are elected will disregard the disproportionately underrepresented group. Rather, unconstitutional discrimination occurs only when the electoral system is arranged in a manner that will consistently degrade a voter's or a group of voters' influence on the political process as a whole.

Although this is a somewhat different formulation than we have previously used in describing unconstitutional vote dilution in an individual district, the focus of both of these inquiries is essentially the same. In both contexts, the question is whether a particular group has been unconstitutionally denied its chance to effectively influence the political process. In a challenge to an individual district, this inquiry focuses on the opportunity of members of the group to participate in party deliberations in the slating and nomination of candidates, their opportunity to register and vote, and hence their chance to directly influence the election returns and to secure the attention of the winning candidate. Statewide, however, the inquiry centers on the voters' direct or indirect influence on the elections of the state legislature as a whole. And, as in individual district cases, an equal protection violation may be found only where the electoral system substantially disadvantages certain voters in their opportunity to influence the political process effectively. In this context, such a finding of unconstitutionality must be supported by evidence of continued frustration of the will of a majority of the voters or effective denial to a minority of voters of a fair chance to influence the political process.

Based on these views, we would reject the District Court's apparent holding that any interference with an opportunity to elect a representative of one's choice would be sufficient to allege or make out an equal protection violation, unless justified by some acceptable state interest that the State would be required to demonstrate . . . .

In sum, we hold that political gerrymandering cases are properly justiciable under the Equal Protection Clause. We also conclude, however, that a threshold showing of discriminatory vote dilution is required for a prima facie case of an equal protection violation. In this case, the findings made by the District Court of an adverse effect on the appellees do not surmount the threshold requirement. Consequently, the judgment of the District Court is