Gray v. Sanders

PETITIONER: James H. Gray et al.
RESPONDENT: James O'Hear Sanders
LOCATION: Georgia State Capitol

DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1962-1965)

CITATION: 372 US 368 (1963)
ARGUED: Jan 17, 1963
DECIDED: Mar 18, 1963

Facts of the case

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the State of Georgia used a county unit system for counting votes in primary elections. Under this system, the candidate who received the highest number of votes in a county would receive all of that county's unit votes. The overall winning candidate would then have to receive a majority of the county unit votes statewide. This system ended up giving rural counties a majority of the unit votes, even though rural counties made up only about a third of the population as of the 1960s.

In 1962, James O'Hear Sanders, a voter in Georgia's most populous county, brought suit against several representatives of the Georgia State Democratic Executive Committee and the Secretary of State of Georgia. Sanders claimed that the county unit system violated the Equal Protection Clause and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Seventeenth Amendment. As a voter within one of the urban counties, Sanders claimed his vote had less of an influence on the nomination of candidates than that of a rural voter. A special three-judge panel of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia agreed with Sanders and held that the county unit system violated the Equal Protection Clause. However, the district court did not outlaw the county unit system entirely. The State appealed directly to the Supreme Court of the United States.


Does the county unit voting system violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution?

Media for Gray v. Sanders

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 17, 1963 (Part 2) in Gray v. Sanders

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 17, 1963 (Part 1) in Gray v. Sanders

Earl Warren:

Number 112, James H. Gray as Chairman of the Georgia State Democratic Executive Committee et al., Appellants, versus James O'Hear Sanders.

Mr. Murphy.

B. D. Murphy:

Yes, Your Honor, may it please the Court.

This is an appeal from a decision by a three-judge District Court which held unconstitutional Georgia's statute describing the county unit system of nominating a party of candidates for state offices and enjoining the party of authorities against holding the primary of 1962 or any primary under a county unit system.

The history of the county unit system of Georgia is set forth to some extent in the opinion of the Court.

The law is also stated to some extent in the briefs of counsel.

It may be worthwhile for me to state it here as briefly as I may.

Georgia, of course, is one of the original 13 states.

When it became a state, it consisted mainly in a few certain areas along the Atlantic coast.

I've forgotten how many counties we had at that time.

Well, I think it was six or seven.

The state officers were elected by the legislature.

The Constitution assigned certain num -- a certain number of representatives to each county.

I think Liberty County had 14.

Some of the other counties had two, some had four.

The town in Port of Savannah had two that represent that trade.

The town in Port of Sunbury had two to represent that trade.

That was the legislative body.

As I say, the legislative body elected the county -- the state officers.

We had no election of governor by the people until 1823.

Early in the history of the state -- the political history of the state, the county's unit system of nominations developed.

It started by caucuses in the legislature, members of the legislature who belong to the Democratic Party would get together and nominate their candidate for governor.

In the same manner, the members of the Whig Party and the legislature would get together and nominate the Whig candidate for governor.

Gradually, they began to invite to those caucuses members of the party from counties that were represented in legislature by the opposite party.

The Whig members would invite democrats from -- or invite Whigs from counties who didn't have Whig representatives and the democrats would do the same thing.

Our convention system of nomination grew out of that.

We never had any direct primaries in Georgia until about 1890 and I think the direct primaries in Georgia grew out of the probably the strength of what was then known as the Populist Party.

The final election of the officers for the state had been -- have always, since election by the people was inaugurated about 1823 by a majority vote of all the voters.

The legislature meets and canvasses the vote and declares the person having the majority of all the votes to be the governor or the state -- Secretary of the State as the case may be.

And, if nobody is elected, they have a -- the legislature proceeds to elect a governor from the -- either the two or three highest.