Landmark Supreme Court Case: Colegrove v. Green (1946)
Colegrove v. Green (1946) is the 89th landmark Supreme Court case, second in the Elections module, featured in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy. While there is overlap, these landmark cases are separated into cases addressing:
- Foreign Policy
- Science & Technology
- Public Safety
- Death Penalty
- Speech, Press, and Protest
- Criminal Justice
- Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the Supreme Court and authorized Congress to pass laws establishing a system of lower courts. The Constitution elaborated neither the exact powers and prerogatives of the Supreme Court nor the organization of the Judicial Branch as a whole. Thus, it has been left to Congress and to the Justices of the Court through their decisions to develop the Federal Judiciary and a body of Federal law.
The number of Justices on the Supreme Court changed six times before settling at the present total of nine in 1869. Since the formation of the Court in 1790, there have been only 17 Chief Justices* and 102 Associate Justices, with Justices serving for an average of 16 years. On average a new Justice joins the Court almost every two years.
The Supreme Court of the United States hears about 100 to 150 appeals of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review every year. That means the decisions made by the 12 Circuit Courts of Appeals across the country and the Federal Circuit Court are the last word in thousands of cases.
Court of Appeals
In the federal court system’s present form, 94 district level trial courts and 13 courts of appeals sit below the Supreme Court. The 94 federal judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a court of appeals. The appellate court’s task is to determine whether or not the law was applied correctly in the trial court. Appeals courts consist of three judges and do not use a jury.
The appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They do not hear witnesses testify. There is no jury. Appellate courts review the procedures and the decisions in the trial court to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly.
A court of appeals hears challenges to district court decisions from courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws, and cases decided by the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The nation’s 94 trial courts are called U.S. District Courts. At a trial in a U.S. District Court, witnesses give testimony and a judge or jury decides who is guilty or not guilty — or who is liable or not liable. District courts resolve disputes by determining the facts and applying legal principles to decide who is right.
Trial courts include the district judge who tries the case and a jury that decides the case. Magistrate judges assist district judges in preparing cases for trial. They may also conduct trials in misdemeanor cases.
There is at least one district court in each state, and the District of Columbia. Each district includes a U.S. bankruptcy court as a unit of the district court.
Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases involving personal, business, or farm bankruptcy. This means a bankruptcy case cannot be filed in state court. Bankruptcy Appellate Panels (BAPs) are 3-judge panels authorized to hear appeals of bankruptcy court decisions. These panels are a unit of the federal courts of appeals, and must be established by that circuit. Five circuits have established panels: First Circuit, Sixth Circuit, Eighth Circuit, Ninth Circuit, and Tenth Circuit.
Colegrove v. Green (1946)
Kenneth W. Colegrove, a citizen of Illinois and a Northwestern University political scientist, brought suit against Illinois officials to enjoin them from holding an upcoming election. Colegrove argued that the congressional districts “lacked compactness of territory and approximate equality of population.
Colegrove arose from the failure of Illinois to redistrict its Congressional delegation since 1901, despite internal migration that had left wide population disparities between various districts. Three voters sued, asserting what would now be known as malapportionment: a rural county of 1,000 and an urban county of 100,000 would have an equal vote.
Q: Did the Illinois congressional districts unconstitutionally violate principles of fair apportionment?
A: No. The Illinois districts were constitutional, largely because existing laws imposed no requirements “as to the compactness, contiguity and equality in population of districts.”
4-3 holding 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 federal judiciary had no power to interfere with issues regarding apportionment of state legislatures.
Article I, section IV of the U.S. Constitution left to the legislature of each state the authority to establish the time, place, and manner of holding elections for representatives, and that only Congress (and thus not the federal judiciary) could determine whether individual state legislatures had fulfilled their responsibility to secure fair representation for citizens; however, in Baker v. Carr (1962) the United States Supreme Court distinguished the Colegrove decision holding that malapportionment claims under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment were not exempt from judicial review under Article IV, Section 4, as the equal protection issue in this case was separate from any political questions.
Dissenting, Justice Hugo Black argued that the Constitution required each citizen’s vote carry equal weight. “While the Constitution contains no express provision requiring that congressional election districts established by the States must contain approximately equal populations,” Black wrote, “the constitutionally guaranteed right to vote, and the right to have one’s vote counted clearly imply the policy that state election systems, no matter what their form, should be designed to give approximately equal weight to each vote cast.” Black thought it wrong that a citizen living in a district of 900,000 people had a much smaller percentage of a vote than someone living in a district with 112,000.
The Colegrove case was decided by a 4–3 plurality. Plurality opinions result when a majority of Justices (usually five or more but in this rare occasion, four) agree on the result in a particular case but no single rationale or opinion garners five votes. The case was voted on by seven rather than nine justices because Chief Justice Stone had just died, and Justice Robert Jackson had taken leave to serve as chief prosecutor of the Nuremberg Trials.
Critics of Colegrove complained that it deprived state citizens of federal remedies, and that the outdated apportionments – dating to 1901, 45 years prior – were the vehicle by which rural, conservative interests were allowed to keep a disproportionate influence over the country’s politics. Until it was overruled by Baker, Colegrove made it almost impossible for citizens’ groups to get help from the federal courts in apportioning legislative and congressional districts.
An exception to the reach of Colegrove was allowed in Gomillion v. Lightfoot (1960), in which the appellants showed that the boundary lines of a district in Alabama had deliberately been drawn to minimize the voting rights of black residents. Frankfurter wrote the opinion in this case as well, making sure that Colegrove would not be seen as allowing blatant racial gerrymandering by recasting the issue as a Fifteenth Amendment case. One week after the Gomillion ruling was handed down, Justice Black persuaded his colleagues to hear arguments in Baker v. Carr, the case which would ultimately overrule Colegrove
The “one person, one vote” doctrine which requires electoral districts to be apportioned according to population, thus making each district roughly equal in population, was further cemented in the cases that followed Baker v. Carr including Gray v. Sanders (1963), which concerned state county districts; Reynolds v. Sims (1964), which concerned state legislature districts; Wesberry v. Sanders, 376 U.S. 1 (1964), which concerned U.S. Congressional districts; and Avery v. Midland County, 390 U.S. 474 (1968), which concerned local government districts, a decision which was upheld in Board of Estimate of City of New York v. Morris, 489 U.S. 688 (1989).
Next Elections Case: Baker v. Carr (1962)
Previous Elections Case: Luther v. Borden (1849)
Next Case: Adamson v. California (1947)
Previous Case: Marsh v. Alabama (1946)