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U.S. Supreme Court to Weigh Proper Classification for Drawing Electoral Lines

By Mark Walsh — May 26, 2015 4 min read
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In a case that could hold implications for elected school boards, the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday took up an important case about the “one-person, one-vote” principle in drawing electoral lines.

The justices agreed to hear a challenge brought by Texas voters to the state Senate map after the 2010 Census that drew district lines based roughly equally on total population, including non-voters and even non-citizens.

The challengers say the voting districts “grossly malaportion” actual voters among the districts, with the result being that there are voters or potential voters in some districts whose votes are worth as much as one-and-a-half times those in other districts.

This violates the “one-person, one-vote” principle established by the Supreme Court in the landmark 1964 case of Reynolds v. Sims, the challengers say.

A special three-judge federal district court dismissed the case last year, ruling that the choice of which population base to use in apportioning districts is a matter left to the states.

In their appeal in Evenwel v. Abbott (Case No. 14-940), the challengers reminded the Supreme Court of the words of Justice Clarence Thomas in a dissent from denial of review in a 2001 voting-rights case that the high court has “never determined the relevant ‘population’ that states and localities must equally distribute among their districts.”

“The failure to resolve this important issue” leaves a “sizable hole in the one-person, one-vote principle,” the challengers said.

The case has several implications for school districts, including the simple fact that any decision by the justices on the relevant population for drawing district lines would apply equally to school board elections.

The challengers cite a 1970 Supreme Court decision that struck down the voting mechanism for a junior college district in Kansas City, Mo. A Missouri law allowed K-12 school districts to band together to form such a junior college district serving all of them. The law provided that trustees of the junior college district be apportioned among the separate K-12 districts on the basis of “school enumeration,” meaning the number of school-aged residents of the district (defined as those between 6 and 20 years old).

Voters in the Kansas City K-12 district sued. The district accounted for 60 percent of the school-aged children in the overall junior college jurisdiction, but Kansas City voters could elect only half of the six trustees. So their votes for the larger junior college district were diluted compared with the votes coming from the five smaller K-12 districts, the challengers argued.

In Hadley v. Junior College District of Metropolitan Kansas City, the Supreme Court sided with the challengers, holding that the Missouri law “results in a systematic discrimination against voters in the more populous school districts.”

(If the Missouri law seems quirky, consider this: Only one year earlier, in 1969, the Supreme Court struck down a New York State statute that limited eligibility to vote in school board elections in certain rural and suburban districts to residents who owned or leased real property or were parents or guardians of children in the public schools. In Kramer v. Union Free School District No. 15, the high court held that the law violated the 14th Amendment equal-protection rights of otherwise eligible voters who didn’t meet those criteria.)

The Texas challengers in the new case cite language by Justice Hugo L. Black in Hadley that “when members of an elected body are chosen from separate districts, each district must be established on a basis that will insure, as far as is practicable, that equal numbers of voters can vote for proportionally equal numbers of officials.”

The high court did not decide in that case whether the “school enumeration” figures, as opposed to total population, were a permissible basis for apportionment of the trustees.

In the new case from Texas, the challengers were joined by several groups, including the American Civil Rights Union, whose friend-of-the-court brief points out that the U.S. Department of Justice has emphasized citizenship and voter data instead of overall population data in several cases it has brought against school districts and other local governments under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (The Justice Department did not file a brief in the Texas case, though it could certainly chime in now that the Supreme Court has granted review.)

Peter J. Ferrarra, a Sterling, Va.-based lawyer who wrote the American Civil Rights Union’s brief, said in an interview that what is driving a case such as the one from Texas is that focusing on overall population—in a state legislative remap, at least—tends to put more political power in urban areas with larger proportions of non-voters, including children and non-citizens.

“You’re diluting the vote of American citizens in many districts if the districts are being drawn to include people who can’t vote,” Ferrarra said. “It’s no longer one-man, one-vote.”

Texas filed a brief urging the Supreme Court not to take up the case.

“Plaintiffs cite no case in which a court has accepted their claim that the Constitution compels states to apportion their legislative districts based on voter population, as opposed to or in addition to total population,” the Texas brief says.

The high court will hear arguments in the Texas case in the term that begins in October.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.