Gordian Knot

The Supreme Court has slashed through the Gordian knot of legal complications entangling the election of Georgia's next governor by ruling that the state legislature can choose between Democrat Lester G. Maddox and Republican Howard H. (Bo) Callaway. The deadlock, created when neither candidate gained an absolute majority in the general election, must be broken. But the way in which the Court has decided to settle the contest means that the candidate with fewer votes may emerge the winner, a result hardly consistent with some of the Court's other recent rulings.

Once the election has been thrown into the legislature, the legislators may support either candidate they wish -- no matter how the people of their district voted. In this case, the overwhelmingly rural-Democratic Georgia legislature will undoubtedly support Maddox, even though Callaway had a slight plurality in the general election.

In the majority opinion of the Court, Justice Hugo L. Black argued that the United States Constitution makes no restrictions on how the states choose their governors. Justices William O. Douglas and Abe Fortas, however, in separate dissents from the five-to-four decision, pointed out that turning the election over to the legislature violates the Court's own "one man, one vote" principle. Georgia voters would not enjoy the "equal protection of the laws" guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment if the candidate favored by the greater number could be defeated by the candidate of the lesser number.

It remains to be seen whether the Georgia decision will mean a slackening of the effort to destroy the power of malapportioned, rural-dominated state governments. The Court has already thrown out Georgia's county unit system, which assigned counties of wildly disproportionate population the same weight in deciding a state-wide election, and effectively gave the state's farm areas many times the political power of the more populous urban centers.

In allowing the Georgia legislature to elect the governor, the Court has retreated from the position it enunciated clearly in its decision on the county unit system: "The conception of political equality from the Declaration of Independence, to Lincoln's Gettysberg Address, to the Fifteenth, Seventeenth, and Nineteenth Amendments can mean only one thing -- one person, one vote."