Colegrove v. Green

328 U.S. 549

Case Year: 1946

Case Ruling: 4-3, Affirmed

Opinion Justice: Frankfurter

More Information

Concurring Opinions

Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Burton, Reed, Rutledge


1st Concurring Opinion

Author: Rutledge


1st Dissenting Opinion

Author: Black


2nd Concurring Opinion



2nd Dissenting Opinion



3rd Concurring Opinion



3rd Dissenting Opinion



Other Concurring Opinions:


Writing for the Court in Luther v. Borden, Chief Justice Taney held that the justices should avoid deciding any question arising out of the U.S. Constitution's Guarantee Clause because such questions are inherently "political." He based this opinion largely on the words of Article IV. Since it omits mention of the Court, Taney interpreted this to mean that the clause was enforceable only by the president or Congress. For approximately the next one hundred years, the Court maintained Taney's position: any case involving the Guarantee Clause constituted a nonjusticiable dispute. Then in the 1940s, an issue came before the Court that presented an opportunity to rethink Luther. The issue was reapportionment, the way the states draw legislative districts. Under the Constitution, each state is allotted a certain number of seats in the House of Representatives based on the state's population. Once that number has been determined, it is up to the state to map out the congressional districts. Article I specifies:

Representatives ... shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers.... The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct. The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one Representative.

In other words, Article I makes clear that the decennial census determines the number of representatives each state receives. However, no guidelines exist as to how those representatives are to be allocated or apportioned within a given state.

As population shifts began to occur early in the twentieth century, some state legislatures redrew their congressional district lines. For most, the new maps meant creating greater parity for urban centers as citizens moved from rural areas. Others legislatures, however, ignored these shifts and refused to reapportion seats. Over time, the results of their inaction became apparent. It was possible for two districts within the same state, with large differences in populations, each to elect one member to the House.

Prior to the November 1946 elections, Kenneth Colegrove, Peter Chamales, and Kenneth Sears, each a qualified Illinois voter, filed suit against Governor Dwight Green and other state officials, challenging the validity of the apportionment of the state's congressional districts. The last reapportionment of Illinois's congressional districts had occurred in 1901. Since that time, a considerable population shift had occurred from rural to the urban areas. The petitioners in this case came from congressional districts that ranged in size from 612,000 to 914,000 residents. The nineteen other districts had populations ranging from 112,116 to 385,207. These disparities, according to the petitioners, violated several constitutional provisions, including the guarantee of a republican form of government. The federal district court dismissed the case, and the petitioners requested Supreme Court review.



... We are of opinion that the petitioners ask of this Court what is beyond its competence to grant. This is one of those demands on judicial power which cannot be met by verbal fencing about 'jurisdiction.' It must be resolved by considerations on the basis of which this Court, from time to time, has refused to intervene in controversies. It has refused to do so because due regard for the effective working of our Government revealed this issue to be of a peculiarly political nature and therefore not meet for judicial determination.

This is not an action to recover for damage because of the discriminatory exclusion of a plaintiff from rights enjoyed by other citizens. The basis for the suit is not a private wrong, but a wrong suffered by Illinois as a polity.... In effect this is an appeal to the federal courts to reconstruct the electoral process of Illinois in order that it may be adequately represented in the councils of the Nation. Because the Illinois legislature has failed to revise its Congressional Representative districts in order to reflect great changes, during more than a generation, in the distribution of its population, we are asked to do this, as it were, for Illinois. Of course no court can affirmatively remap the Illinois districts so as to bring them more in conformity with the standards of fairness for a representative system. At best we could only declare the existing electoral system invalid. The result would be to leave Illinois undistricted and to bring into operation, if the Illinois legislature chose not to act, the choice of members for the House of Representatives on a state-wide ticket. The last stage may be worse than the first. The upshot of judicial action may defeat the vital political principle which led Congress, more than a hundred years ago, to require districting.... Nothing is clearer than that this controversy concerns matters that bring courts into immediate and active relations with party contests. From the determination of such issues this Court has traditionally held aloof. It is hostile to a democratic system to involve the judiciary in the politics of the people. And it is not less pernicious if such judicial intervention in an essentially political contest be dressed up in the abstract phrases of the law.

The petitioners urge with great zeal that the conditions of which they complain are grave evils and offend public morality. The Constitution of the United States gives ample power to provide against these evils. But due regard for the Constitution as a viable system precludes judicial correction. Authority for dealing with such problems resides elsewhere. Article I, section 4 of the Constitution provides that 'The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for ... Representative, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, ....' The short of it is that the Constitution has conferred upon Congress exclusive authority to secure fair representation by the States in the popular House and left to that House determination whether States have fulfilled their responsibility. If Congress failed in exercising its powers, whereby standards of fairness are offended, the remedy ultimately lies with the people. Whether Congress faithfully discharges its duty or not, the subject has been committed to the exclusive control of Congress. An aspect of government from which the judiciary, in view of what is involved, has been excluded by the clear intention of the Constitution cannot be entered by the federal courts because Congress may have been in default in exacting from States obedience to its mandate.

The one stark fact that emerges from a study of the history of Congressional apportionment is its embroilment in politics, in the sense of party contests and party interests. The Constitution enjoins upon Congress the duty of apportioning Representatives 'among the several States ... according to their respective Numbers, ....' Yet, Congress has at times been heedless of this command and not apportioned according to the requirements of the Census. It never occurred to anyone that this Court could issue mandamus to compel Congress to perform its mandatory duty to apportion.... Until 1842 there was the greatest diversity among the States in the manner of choosing Representatives because Congress had made no requirement for districting.... Congress then provided for the election of Representatives by districts.... The Reapportionment Act of 1862 required that the districts be of contiguous territory.... In 1872 Congress added the requirement of substantial equality of inhabitants.... This was reinforced in 1911.... But the 1929 Act ... dropped these requirements.... Throughout our history, whatever may have been the controlling Apportionment Act, the most glaring disparities have prevailed as to the contours and the population of districts....

To sustain this action would cut very deep into the very being of Congress. Courts ought not to enter this political thicket. The remedy for unfairness in districting is to secure State legislatures that will apportion properly, or to invoke the ample powers of Congress. The Constitution has many commands that are not enforceable by courts because they clearly fall outside the conditions and purposes that circumscribe judicial action.... The duty to see to it that the laws are faithfully executed cannot be brought under legal compulsion.... Violation of the great guaranty of a republican form of government in States cannot be challenged in the courts.... The Constitution has left the performance of many duties in our governmental scheme to depend on the fidelity of the executive and legislative action and, ultimately, on the vigilance of the people in exercising their political rights.

Dismissal of the complaint is



... In the present suit the complaint attacked the 1901 State Apportionment Act on the ground that it among other things violates Article One and the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. Petitioners claim that since they live in the heavily populated districts their vote is much less effective than the vote of those living in a district which under the 1901 Act is also allowed to choose one Congressman, though its population is sometimesonly one-ninth that of the heavily populated districts. Petitioners contend that this reduction of the effectiveness of their vote is the result of a willful legislative discrimination against them and thus amounts to a denial of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. They further assert that this reduction of the effectiveness of their vote also violates the privileges and immunities clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in abridging their privilege as citizens of the United States to vote for Congressmen, a privilege guaranteed by Article One of the Constitution. They further contend that the State Apportionment Act directly violates Article One which guarantees that each citizen eligible to vote has a right to vote for Congressmen and to have his vote counted. The assertion here is that the right to have their vote counted is abridged unless that vote is given approximately equal weight to that of other citizens. It is my judgment that the District Court had jurisdiction; that the complaint presented a justiciable case and controversy, and that petitioners had standing to sue, since the facts alleged show that they have been injured as individuals....

Had Illinois passed an Act requiring that all of its twenty-four Congressmen be elected by the citizens of one county, it would clearly have amounted to a denial to the citizens of the other counties of their Constitutionally guaranteed right to vote. And I cannot imagine that an Act that would have apportioned twenty-three Congressmen to the State's smallest county and one Congressman to all the others, would have been sustained by any Court. Such an Act would clearly have violated the Constitutional policy of equal representation. The 1901 Apportionment Act here involved violates that policy in the same way. The policy with respect to federal elections laid down by the Constitution, while it does not mean that the Courts can or should prescribe the precise methods to be followed by state legislatures and the invalidation of all Acts that do not embody those precise methods, does mean that state legislatures must make real efforts to bring about approximately equal representation of citizens in Congress. Here the legislature of Illinois has not done so. Whether that was due to negligence or was a wilful effort to deprive some citizens of an effective vote, the admitted result is that the Constitutional policy of equality of representation has been defeated. Under these circumstances it is the Court's duty to invalidate the state law.

It is contended, however, that a court of equity does not have the power, or even if it has the power, that it should not exercise it in this case. To do so, it is argued, would mean that the Court is entering the area of 'political questions.' I cannot agree with that argument. There have been cases, such as Coleman v. Miller, where this Court declined to decide a question because it was political. In the Miller case, however, the question involved was ratification of a Constitutional amendment, a matter over which the Court believed Congress had been given final authority. To have decided that question would have amounted to a trespass upon the Constitutional power of Congress. Here we have before us a state law which abridges the Constitutional rights of citizens to cast votes in such way as to obtain the kind of Congressional representation the Constitution guarantees to them.

It is true that voting is a part of elections and that elections are 'political.' But as this Court said in Nixon v. Herndon, it is a mere 'play on words' to refer to a controversy such as this as 'political' in the sense that courts have nothing to do with protecting and vindicating the right of a voter to cast an effective ballot....