The Tennessee Decision

On Monday, the Supreme Court handed down a decision that will alter the face of American political life. Breaking with its own precedent, the Court ruled 6 to 2 that Federal courts must consider legal complaints of city voters who are under-represented in the legislatures of most of the fifty states. Although the decision directly concerns a suit on the part of metropolitan voters in Tennessee, its implications extend to every state. Federal courts now have the duty to rule on the constitutionality of state legislative apportionments, and the apportionments themselves are subject to the clause of the 14th Amendment which provides that no state shall deny equal protection of the laws to any person.

In effect, Monday's decision is a big step towards freeing America from the domination of its own rural past. A distrust of cities--Jefferson called them "Sinks of voluntary misery"--is built into the machinery of the present American political system. A progressive disenfranchisement of city voters has taken place for the last fifty years; and every year the imbalance between the city and the farm has become more intolerable. The average value of the big city vote in the 1960 elections was less than half the average value of the vote in rural parts of the country.

Indirectly, the rural dominance of the state legislatures has given farm voters--at a cautious estimate--about thirty more seats in Congress than they would have under any fair system of Congressional apportionment. In the recent past, a majority of Americans, the city-dwellers, have had to watch an unrepresentative House of Representatives sabotage city-sponsored national legislation on civil rights, housing, highways, medical care, and schools. All this was legislation for which there was a clear and present national need.

In the states themselves, the upstate or downstate farm vote on social legislation has been a vote for the past against the city. Rural Republicans in the North and West and conservative Democrats in the South have manipulated their legislatures to block greater state spending on such urban problems as transportation, schools, and slum clearance.

The Supreme Court's decision to turn the Tennessee case back to the Federal bench opens the way for a whole series of similar suits in other states. In addition to Tennessee, 14 states have constitutional provisions for periodic re-apportionment and all have failed to act within the time set by their constitutions. And a number of other states will certainly face court challenges to redistrict; even some of the 21 states that did redistrict after the 1960 census may face legal accusations from city voters that theirs were only token efforts. Whether all such suits will succeed depends, of course, on circumstances and the letter of the constitution in each state.

Justice Brennan's majority opinion gives the lower courts no guidelines for defining what a fair apportionment would be; and this omission, taken with the cautious tone of his opinion, shows that the Court shares at least some of the concern that prompted Justice Frankfurter to dissent so vigorously. Frankfurter laid down the 1946 ruling which Federal courts have up to now quoted in refusing to rule on legislative apportionment, and he is still worried that the Court is entering a dangerous political thicket. Certainly the dangers he points out are real, but then so are the out-rages of the American political system. And as with the segregation issue, there is no remedy but Court action. As Justice Clark put it, "It is well for this court to practice self-restraint and discipline . . . but never in its history have those principles received sanction where the national rights of so many have been so clearly infringed for so long a time."

In all likelihood, many of the threatened state legislatures will make their representation more equal without the Federal courts' having to spell out new apportionment plans for them. This is fortunate, for if the courts can use the injunction without getting involved in reapportionment schemes, they will have a better chance to keep clear of the political thickets which worry Frankfurter so.

The Court's decision may mean that metropolitan liberals have a fair chance to establish control of state legislatures--and a better chance to seat their own men in Congress. It may mean that urban minorities will have even greater leverage in American politics. And it may mean that urban reform can at last free itself from rusty political machinery never designed for this century.