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Journal of Policy History 12.3 (2000) 293-320

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Race and Reapportionment, 1962: The Case of Georgia Senate Redistricting

Peyton McCrary and Steven F. Lawson

Courts, both state and federal, often play a substantial role in the adoption and implementation of changes in public policy. Properly understood, the impact of court decisions must be examined in the context of actions and reactions by other branches of government, political parties, and interest groups. 1 Among the most transformative court decisions over the last half century are those involving legislative reapportionment and minority voting rights. Beginning in the 1960s, the federal courts restructured the nation's political institutions through decisions striking down malapportioned legislatures and local governing bodies through what used to be termed the "reapportionment revolution," perhaps the only revolution ignored altogether by historians. 2 Shortly thereafter the courts extended their attack on quantitative vote dilution (which the "one-person, one-vote" standard is designed to address) to include protection against electoral rules that dilute the voting strength of racial minorities. 3

Under certain circumstances, however, the two varieties of constitutional protection could be in conflict. The reapportionment revolution sometimes had unintended consequences, as legal scholar Robert Dixon reminds us: "Frequently in the course of constitutional development one problem is solved or at least ameliorated only at the cost of creating or worsening another problem." 4 The initial effect of the reapportionment decisions, as political scientists recognized at the time, was to increase the use of at-large elections from multimember districts in metropolitan counties, especially in the South, and this practice had a racially discriminatory effect unintended by the federal courts. 5 The following article provides a case study of one such unintended consequence. 6 [End Page 293]

Federal court decisions in 1962 dramatically altered Georgia politics by ending the fabled county unit system and requiring the state for the first time to redistrict its malapportioned legislature. 7 Court-ordered reapportionment to meet the standard of population equality, ironically, triggered a dramatic effort by the state, under the leadership of newly elected "New South" governor Carl Sanders, to dilute black voting strength by the use of at-large elections. 8 The effort to use at-large elections was, in turn, challenged in both state and federal court, with ironic consequences at both levels. 9 A proper understanding of these developments sheds new light on the relationship between race and reapportionment both in the political arena and in the emerging equal-protection decisions of the 1960s.

The Courts Invade the Political Thicket

Georgia was hardly unique in having a malapportioned legislature in 1962. At the time, most states apportioned seats in such a way that the mathematical weight of voters in sparsely populated rural counties was greater than the mathematical weight of voters in densely settled metropolitan counties. 10 The federal courts refused to accept jurisdiction over challenges to malapportioned legislatures, however, following the Supreme Court's notion of judicial restraint. In this view, redistricting challenges presented a "political question" to be avoided by the courts, as enunciated in the 1946 decision Colegrove v. Green: "Courts ought not to enter this political thicket. The remedy for unfairness in districting is to secure State legislatures that will apportion properly." 11

Judicial squeamishness in dealing with redistricting issues was first eroded by the Supreme Court in a 1960 decision that involved racial discrimination rather than malapportionment. In 1957 the Alabama legislature redrew the boundaries of the predominantly black city of Tuskegee in such a way that virtually all its black inhabitants were beyond the municipal limits. At the time, black voter registration in Tuskegee was rapidly increasing. Sam Engelhardt Jr., the legislative architect of what came to be known as the "Tuskegee gerrymander," saw de-annexation of the black population as a way of preventing the election of blacks to the city council. Civil rights lawyer Fred Gray promptly challenged Engelhardt's handiwork in federal court. The district and appellate courts, guided by the Colegrove doctrine, declined to act. The Supreme Court broke new ground by invalidating...


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