Saturday, June 25, 2016

A political Court

I'm a fan of the radio program Radiolab heard on NPR, though I listen to it through the internet. Today I heard an episode of a series titled More Perfect, stories of the Supreme Court. This episode featured the case Baker v. Carr of 1961-62. The audio is about 50 minutes.

The state of Tennessee (and others in the South) hadn't redrawn its congressional district maps for 60 years. But population had shifted from the countryside to the cities. Things had gotten so out of whack that city districts had 23 times more people than rural districts. The reason for this system was simple: racism and Jim Crow. Cities tended to be more liberal and tended to have a more mixed race population. Legislative leaders knew the current districts supported their power and redistricting would change that power which, in their eyes, was not for the better.

City voters sued, saying the rural focus of the legislature hurt the infrastructure of cities.

The main characters on the court were:

Chief Justice Earl Warren.

Justice William Douglas on the left, and quite the bully.

Justice Felix Frankfurter on the right, and even more of a bully.

In between was Justice Charles Whittaker, the swing vote.

The main idea from Frankfurter was that how states draw their political maps is a political issue and the Court should not get involved. Yes, the situation in Tennessee is vile. But taking this case means the Court will have to decide all sorts of political spats. We shouldn't go there.

Douglas responded by saying if the Court doesn't tackle this political injustice it cannot be fixed. Tennessee has rigged it so those in power benefit from this injustice and have no intention of undermining their own power.

When the justices went into conference (in which the room is closed to all but the justices) both Douglas and Frankfurter harangued Whittaker in hopes of getting his vote. Whittaker was distraught over the decision. Before the case was decided Whittaker had a nervous breakdown and soon resigned.

Other justices ended up supporting Douglas and the case was decided 6-2 in favor of intervening in Tennessee. Shortly after that Frankfurter had a bad stroke and also resigned. President Kennedy filled the two vacancies with a moderate and a liberal – forming the famous Warren Court that was so interventionist in the '60s.

The defeat of the idea that the Court should stay out of politics led to many wonderful decisions, including "one person, one vote." It also led to … Bush v. Gore.

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