Baker v. Carr: Summary, Decision & Significance

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  • 0:04 Apportionment
  • 0:37 Baker v. Carr: The Argument
  • 2:06 Baker v. Carr: The…
  • 2:33 Baker v. Carr: The Decision
  • 3:17 Baker v. Carr: Significance
  • 4:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Deona Cureton

I have taught honors English in high school, have an BA in Political Science and English, Master's in Educational Leadership & Policy Studies, and completing my PhD in Public Administration & Policy with a concentration in Law & Public Policy

In this lesson, you'll learn about the court case of Baker v. Carr, which concerned the issue of how states elect representatives and whether the courts have any say. We'll discuss the outcome of the case and its significance to American law.


You go to the mailbox to get your mail, hoping it's your new voter registration card … voting season is upon us! When you open the official envelope, you note with surprise that your district has changed. ''Oh right,'' you remember, ''they redistricted this year.'' Curious, you start reading about the history. You soon come across the Baker v. Carr case, which was an important Supreme Court case regarding voter representation, or apportionment: how the lines of districts are drawn, and who gets to decide.

Baker v. Carr: The Argument

Mr. Charles Baker brought suit in 1961 against Joe Carr, Tennessee's Secretary of State, as a representative of the state of Tennessee. He claimed that the districts used to determine representation in the Tennessee state legislature were unfairly drawn. The Tennessee State Constitution stipulates that towns are obligated to take a census, or the statistical data of districts, towns, and cities' populations and demographics. They must do this every ten years, and the state is then required to use this information to redraw the jurisdictional boundaries in a fair manner. According to Mr. Baker, the legislature was failing in their duty.

Mr. Baker was the mayor of Millington, Tennessee, near Memphis. Millington, like many more urbanized parts of Tennessee, had grown rapidly since the turn of the century. Its representation, meanwhile, had stayed the same - since 1901. In 1901, the legislature had agreed to use the Federal census to determine the population of each county instead of requiring localities to take their own censuses. However, this had not yet happened - every reapportionment motion since then had failed. Mr. Baker argued that the 1901 apportionment was unfair in the first place and that the Tennessee State Legislature had disobeyed the Constitution when it failed to reapportion representatives every ten years. This, he claimed, was a violation of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guaranteed ''the equal protection of the laws.''

Baker v. Carr: The Counterargument

The state of Tennessee responded that redistricting was a political issue, not an issue for the courts. They relied on earlier cases in which courts had refused to rule on districting issues on the grounds that any component of the case that was judiciable, meaning able to be judged by the court, was inextricably linked to political issues. The courts had said that districting issues could only be decided by legislatures, and Tennessee appealed to this precedent when facing Baker's argument in court.

Baker v. Carr: The Decision

The District Court initially agreed with Tennessee, arguing not that the state's failure to reapportion representatives was constitutional, but that it was the legislature's job to remedy. The United States Supreme Court, however, disagreed. Overturning decades of precedent, they ruled that some reapportionment cases may not be wholly political in nature, clearing the way for courts to make judgments. The ruling included a list of six criteria designed to help future courts decide which cases are political and which aren't.

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