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Context of 'March 18, 1963: Supreme Court Establishes ‘One Person, One Vote’ as Law'

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In a landmark ruling, the US Supreme Court, in the case of Baker v. Carr, finds that courts can order state legislatures to redraw district boundaries to ensure citizens’ political rights. The case pertains directly to Tennessee, which still uses 60-year-old district boundaries that give minorities less representation than would be the case if districts were redrawn to more equally represent populations. Hence, Tennessee has an outsized white majority in its state legislature. The Court rules that courts can order such districts to be redrawn. The ruling is a major advancement for minority voting rights. (American Civil Liberties Union 2012)

The US Supreme Court, in the case of Gray v. Sanders, rules that Georgia’s “county unit” system of voting is unconstitutional, and codifies the concept of “one person, one vote.” Georgia’s “county unit” voting system is unfairly weighed to maximize votes from largely white rural areas and to dilute votes from urban districts with larger minority populations. Georgia voter James Sanders brought a suit challenging the system; his suit named James H. Gray, the chairman of the State Executive Committee of the Democratic Party, as one of the defendants. The Court agreed to hear this case though it had refused to hear previous challenges to the “county unit” system in the past. The Court rules 8-1 that the system violates the Fourteenth Amendment, which grants equal protection under the law. In the majority opinion, Justice William O. Douglas writes, “The conception of political equality from the Declaration of Independence, to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, to the Fifteenth, Seventeenth, and Nineteenth Amendments can mean only one thing—one person, one vote.” The lone dissenter, Justice John Marshall Harlan II, says the case should be sent back to lower courts for retrial. (American Civil Liberties Union 2012)

The US Supreme Court applies the concept of “one person, one vote” (see March 18, 1963) to legislative bodies. The Court, ruling in Reynolds v. Sims, forces Alabama to redraw legislative boundaries that had remained unchanged since 1900 (see March 26, 1962). The Court rules that “the right to exercise the franchise in a free and unimpaired manner is preservative of other basic civil and political rights,” finding that Alabama’s legislative boundaries unfairly underrepresented minority voters. (American Civil Liberties Union 2012)

The US Supreme Court, in the case of Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, finds Virginia’s law upholding “poll taxes” to be unconstitutional. The 7-2 decision finds that poll taxes—fees demanded of voters, which have been used for over a century to disenfranchise minority voters (see February 4, 1964 and December 6, 1937)—violate the Constitution by imposing discriminatory restrictions on voting. Justice William O. Douglas writes the majority opinion, with Justice Hugo Black and John Marshall Harlan II dissenting. Douglas cites the landmark Brown v. Board decision (see May 17, 1954) and the recently passed Voting Rights Act (see August 6, 1965) in his ruling. (Legal Information Institute 2011)

The Supreme Court rules 6-3 not to permanently enjoin the New York Times and other press organs from publishing articles derived from the Pentagon Papers (see June 26, 1971). Three justices, William O. Douglas, Hugo Black, and Thurgood Marshall, insist that the government can never suppress the publication of information no matter what the threat to national security; the other three in the majority, Potter Stewart, Byron White, and William Brennan, use a more moderate “common sense” standard that says, though the government can suppress publication of sensitive information under circumstances of war or national emergency, this case did not meet the criteria for such suppression. Chief Justice Warren Burger is joined by Harry Blackmun and John Harlan in dissenting; they believe that the president has the unrestrained authority to prevent confidential materials affecting foreign policy from being published. The Times’s lawyer says that the ruling will help ensure that a federal court will not issue a restraining order against a news outlet simply because the government is unhappy with the publication of a particular article. (Herda 1994)


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