Mahan v. Howell

410 U.S. 315

Case Year: 1973

Case Ruling: 5-3 Reverse

Opinion Justice: Rehnquist

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Concurring Opinions

Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Blackmun, Burger, Stewart, White


1st Concurring Opinion



1st Dissenting Opinion

Author: Brennan

Joiner(s): Douglas, Marshall

2nd Concurring Opinion



2nd Dissenting Opinion



3rd Concurring Opinion



3rd Dissenting Opinion



Other Concurring Opinions:


In 1971 the Virginia legislature reapportioned itself. The plan adopted for the House of Delegates provided for representatives to be elected from fifty-two districts, some of which were single-member constituencies and others of which were multimember districts. The average House member represented 46,485 constituents. The variance between the largest number of represented citizens and the smallest was 16.4 percent, with a mean variation from the ideal of 3.89 percent. With the exception of Fairfax County, which was divided into two five-member districts, all of the reapportioned districts followed the existing city and county political boundaries. Henry Howell Jr., and others brought suit against John Mahan, the secretary of the state board of elections, and other state officials to have the reapportionment plan declared unconstitutional. Among other arguments, they contended that the plan's population deviations were too large to satisfy the principle of one person, one vote. Relying on Kirkpatrick v. Preisler (1969), which demanded good-faith efforts to attain absolute equality, the district court found the reapportionment plan to be in violation of the Constitution. The state appealed.



... This Court first recognized that the Equal Protection Clause requires both houses of a bicameral state legislature to be apportioned substantially on a population basis in Reynolds v. Sims [1964]. In so doing, it suggested that in the implementation of the basic constitutional principle--equality of population among the districts--more flexibility was constitutionally permissible with respect to state legislative reapportionment than in congressional redistricting.... Consideration was given to the fact that, almost invariably, there is a significantly larger number of seats in state legislative bodies to be distributed within a State than congressional seats, and that therefore it may be feasible for a State to use political subdivision lines to a greater extent in establishing state legislative districts than congressional districts while still affording adequate statewide representation. Another possible justification for deviation from population-based representation in state legislatures was stated to be:

"[T]hat of insuring some voice to political subdivisions, as political subdivisions. Several factors make more than insubstantial claims that a State can rationally consider according political subdivisions some independent representation in at least one body of the state legislature, as long as the basic standard of equality of population among districts is maintained. Local governmental entities are frequently charged with various responsibilities incident to the operation of state government. In many States much of the legislature's activity involves the enactment of so-called local legislation, directed only to the concerns of particular political subdivisions. And a State may legitimately desire to construct districts along political subdivision lines to deter the possibilities of gerrymandering...."

By contrast, the Court in Wesberry v. Sanders [1964] recognized no excuse for the failure to meet the objective of equal representation for equal numbers of people in congressional districting other than the practical impossibility of drawing equal districts with mathematical precision. Thus, whereas population alone has been the sole criterion of constitutionality in congressional redistricting under Art. I, section 2, broader latitude has been afforded the States under the Equal Protection Clause in state legislative redistricting because of the considerations enumerated in Reynolds v. Sims. The dichotomy between the two lines of cases has consistently been maintained. In Kirkpatrick v. Preisler [1969], for example, one asserted justification for population variances was that they were necessarily a result of the State's attempt to avoid fragmenting political subdivisions by drawing congressional district lines along existing political subdivision boundaries. This argument was rejected in the congressional context....

We conclude ... that the constitutionality of Virginia's legislative redistricting plan was not to be judged by the more stringent standards applicable to congressional reapportionment, but instead by the equal protection test enunciated inReynolds v. Sims. We reaffirm its holding that "the Equal Protection Clause requires that a State make an honest and good faith effort to construct districts, in both houses of its legislature, as nearly of equal population as is practicable." We likewise reaffirm its conclusion that "[s]o long as the divergences from a strict population standard are based on legitimate considerations incident to the effectuation of a rational state policy, some deviations from the equal-population principle are constitutionally permissible with respect to the apportionment of seats in either or both of the two houses of a bicameral state legislature."...

We hold that the legislature's plan for apportionment of the House of Delegates may reasonably be said to advance the rational state policy of respecting the boundaries of political subdivisions. The remaining inquiry is whether the population disparities among the districts that have resulted from the pursuit of this plan exceed constitutional limits. We conclude that they do not....

... The relatively minor variations present in the Virginia plan contrast sharply with the larger variations in state legislative reapportionment plans that have been struck down by previous decisions of this Court. Neither courts nor legislatures are furnished any specialized calipers that enable them to extract from the general language of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment the mathematical formula that establishes what range of percentage deviations is permissible, and what is not. The 16-odd percent maximum deviation that the District Court found to exist in the legislative plan for the reapportionment of the House is substantially less than the percentage deviations that have been found invalid in the previous decisions of this Court. While this percentage may well approach tolerable limits, we do not believe it exceeds them. Virginia has not sacrificed substantial equality to justifiable deviations.

The policy of maintaining the integrity of political subdivision lines in the process of reapportioning a state legislature, the policy consistently advanced by Virginia as a justification for disparities in population among districts that elect members to the House of Delegates, is a rational one. It can reasonably be said, upon examination of the legislative plan, that it does in fact advance that policy. The population disparities that are permitted thereunder result in a maximum percentage deviation that we hold to be within tolerable constitutional limits. We, therefore, hold the General Assembly's plan for the reapportionment of the House of Delegates constitutional and reverse the District Court's conclusion to the contrary....


... I dissent ... from the Court's action in setting aside the District Court's finding that the apportionment of the State House of Delegates violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment....

The holdings of our prior decisions can be restated in two unequivocal propositions. First, the paramount goal of reapportionment must be the drawing of district lines so as to achieve precise equality in the population of each district. "[T]he Equal Protection Clause requires that a State make an honest and good faith effort to construct districts, in both houses of its legislature, as nearly ofequal population as is practicable." Reynolds v. Sims; see also Kirkpatrick v. Preisler. The Constitution does not permit a State to relegate considerations of equality to secondary status and reserve as the primary goal of apportionment the service of some other state interest.

Second, it is open to the State, in the event that it should fail to achieve the goal of population equality, to attempt to justify its failure by demonstrating that precise equality could not be achieved without jeopardizing some critical governmental interest. The Equal Protection Clause does not exalt the principle of equal representation to the point of nullifying every competing interest of the State. But we have held firmly to the view that variations in weight accorded each vote can be approved only where the State meets its burden of presenting cogent reasons in explanation of the variations, and even then only where the variations are small....

The validity of these propositions and their applicability to the case before us are not at all diminished by the fact thatKirkpatrick v. Preisler and Wells v. Rockefeller (1969)--two of the many cases in which the propositions were refined and applied--concerned the division of States into federal congressional districts rather than legislative reapportionment. Prior to today's decision, we have never held that different constitutional standards are applicable to the two situations. True, there are significant differences between congressional districting and legislative apportionment, and we have repeatedly recognized those differences. In Reynolds v. Sims, for example, we termed "more than insubstantial" the argument that "a State can rationally consider according political subdivisions some independent representation in at least one body of the state legislature, as long as the basic standard of equality of population among districts is maintained."... But the recognition of these differences is hardly tantamount to the establishment of two distinct controlling standards. What our decisions have made clear is that certain state interests that are pertinent to legislative reapportionment can have no possible relevance to congressional districting. Thus, the need to preserve the integrity of political subdivisions as political subdivisions may, in some instances, justify small variations in the population of districts from which state legislators are elected. But that interest can hardly be asserted in justification of malapportioned congressional districts. Kirkpatrick v. Preisler. While the State may have a broader range of interests to which it can point in attempting to justify a failure to achieve precise equality in the context of legislative apportionment, it by no means follows that the State is subject to a lighter burden of proof or that the controlling constitutional standard is in any sense distinguishable.... I would affirm the District Court's decision because, on this record, the Commonwealth of Virginia failed... to justify substantial variations in the population of the districts from which members of the House of Delegates are elected. The panel that heard the case below consisted of four judges, all from Virginia, and I share their unanimous view that the Commonwealth failed to prove that the variations were justified by a need to insure representation of political subdivisions or a need to respect county boundaries in the drawing of district lines....