When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law in 1964, he lamented that Democrats might have lost the South for 30 years. In a sense he was wrong — the loss of the South was a slow-motion process that took more than 30 years to really get into the bones of the body politic. But Tennessee may now be seeing the final act of that transformation with the completion of the congressional and legislative redistricting processes. With this year's process, Republicans can now fully say that they own the state.
Politicians have long regarded redistricting as a kind of reverse election in which they vote out the constituents deemed to have been insufficiently enthusiastic in their support for the incumbents. Democrats exile pockets of Republican voters to the districts of adjacent Republican lawmakers, who accept them with the same glee that they expel their noisome Democratic constituents. It tends to be more about the "ins" declaring war on the "outs" in defense of the status quo, in a malodorous general conspiracy against the public that sometimes obscures the subtle ways in which power is balanced for or against the various elements of society.
Tennessee has always been ground zero in that struggle. In 1962, Charles Baker, a Shelby County Republican, was the named plaintiff in the Supreme Court's landmark Baker v. Carr decision, which opened the redistricting process — or lack thereof — to judicial review. At that time, the Tennessee constitution required state legislative districts to be redrawn with each decennial census. No action had been taken to update Tennessee's district lines, however, since 1901, when the population distribution reflected the state's agricultural nature.
In the intervening years, agricultural mechanization and the growth of industry (particularly driven by the wars) had pulled much of the population away from the land. Any rudimentary sense of justice would have suggested that political power should be adjusted accordingly, but for some reason the rural interests could never quite bring themselves to vote away their own power. When Baker filed, districts representing about a third of the population controlled about two-thirds of the legislative seats.
In 1964's follow-on Reynolds v. Sims decision, the high court established the "one-man, one-vote" principle — the notion that the vote any citizen casts should have the same political influence as any other citizen. State legislatures across the nation were ordered to reapportion along population lines. The decision was a triumph in the progress of democracy — and a trigger for all sorts of shenanigans ever since.
Of course, Baker himself was more of a cat's paw than a hero. The suit grew out of a 10-year legal campaign by urban interests primarily in Nashville, and the lion's share of funding for the legal fees was actually appropriated by the Nashville city council. Memphis, long the state's largest city, had for many years resisted urban-rural rebalancing in the state legislature as a cost of local boss Ed Crump's various alliances with rural interests and East Tennessee Republicans — which made him the dominant force in Tennessee politics up until the 1950s.
But even after the decision, the battle had more to do with urban and rural interests than partisan interests in a state where two-party competition was only beginning to emerge. The one-man, one-vote upheaval was greater in a number of other states, which had systems designed to mimic the federal constitution by giving each county one senator, regardless of population.
Prior to the Baker ruling, the high court had been unwilling to get into the redistricting issue as too much of a "political thicket" for the courts, but had cracked the door two years earlier when confronted with something too outrageous to ignore. The Alabama state legislature, responding to the rising prospect of black electoral power, had redrawn the municipal boundaries of Tuskegee to remove virtually all black voters from the city limits. An entity that had previously looked something like a square on the map now looked something like a spider.
Justice Felix Frankfurter led the court in opposing judicial interference in redistricting issues, but the Alabama action showed that even he could be pushed too far. In the high court's opinion in Gomillion v. Lightfoot, he wrote that political boundaries could not be determined on the basis of race. That element was underscored in 1965 by the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Not only did it clear a number of obstacles to voter registration, it provided for long-term Justice Department oversight of jurisdictions — mostly Southern — with a history of racially discriminatory practices.
The 1950s and 1960s represented a high-water mark in the Supreme Court's commitment to "equal justice under law." The high court promulgated landmark human-rights decisions on school desegregation, poll taxes, rights of criminal defendants and privacy rights. Though hotly controversial at the time, these have mostly attained at least superficial public acceptance away from the far shores of paranoid politics and 20 years of Law and Order episodes. Since then, the courts have done little consistent to protect citizens from all the other clever kinds of chicanery that go into the process of controlling the rules of the game.
"To the extent that a citizen's right to vote is debased, he is that much less of a citizen. The weight of a citizen's vote cannot be made to depend on where he lives," wrote Chief Justice Earl Warren in the one-man, one-vote decision. Of course, that's exactly what legislators have in mind when they start drawing up legislative lines.
Humphrey's column is excellent.
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