Wells v. Rockefeller

RESPONDENT: Rockefeller
LOCATION: Des Moines Independent Community School District

DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1967-1969)

CITATION: 394 US 542 (1969)
ARGUED: Jan 13, 1969
DECIDED: Apr 07, 1969

Facts of the case


Media for Wells v. Rockefeller

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 13, 1969 in Wells v. Rockefeller

Earl Warren:

Number 238, David I. Wells, appellant, versus Nelson A. Rockefeller.

Mr. McKay.

Robert B. McKay:

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court.

I should like first to introduce Mr. David Wells, the plaintiff-appellant in this case who, through the generosity of the Clerk’s Office has been allowed to participate with me as an adviser even though he is not a member of this Bar or any Bar but, he is a man of great knowledge in the field of congressional districting, particularly in New York.

This is an appeal from a three-judge Federal District Court in the Southern District of New York, dismissing the suit that had been brought by Mr. Wells in 1966 in challenging the then 1961 congressional districting statute in New York.

The present appeal is from the judgment and order of 1968 upholding and, therefore, dismissing the complaint in connection with the 1968 congressional districting statute of New York.

In a sense, this case picks up where the Missouri case, which we’ve just heard argument, leaves off.

It may respect it as quite different because, in this case, unlike the Missouri case, the legislative posture was totally different.

There was no debate in the legislature of any consequence.

There was only one plan presented which had been prepared by a Joint Legislative Committee on Reapportionment in Camera, was presented, and was passed without essential debate.

The population disparities between the smallest and the largest districts are more than twice as great as in the Missouri case.

And, specifically in this case, the appellant has claimed throughout that there is a deviation that is so substantial that requires justification, but the justifications given by the state are unsatisfactory and, further, that there is a lack of compactness and that the reasons for that are explained by affirmative evidence in the record showing that there was a partisan objective leading to the particular district lines that were drawn.

This case, thus, raises two principle questions that are related but separable.

The first is, where there are population deviations that are not de minimis, what is necessary for the state in order to satisfy its burden of justification.

Second, where the districts are not as compact as they could have been and there's affirmative evidence of a gerrymander for partisan or, in this case, perhaps bipartisan purposes, is the plan unconstitutional.

The suit was originally filed in 1966 in challenge to the last previous congressional districting statute in New York which dated from the year 1961.

In May of 1967, the three-judge Court held that the statute was unconstitutional and that decision was affirmed by this Court in December of 1967.

The three-judge Court held that the population deviations were excessive and they were, indeed, very substantial at that time.

It suggested also that there was “a seemingly bizarre structure among the congressional districts,” and so the Court advised that, in redrawing the lines, the legislature should draw congressional districts that are “reasonably compact and contiguous.”

And, the legislature was warned not to allow “considerations of race, sex, economic status, or politics to cross their minds.”

How well the New York legislature obeyed that injunction, we shall see.

The 1968 Act was prepared by a small group of legislators in the Joint Legislative Committee on Reapportionment, and the drafting was largely in the hands of advisers to the leading Republican and Democratic figures concerned with this particular matter at the time in New -- in the State of New York.

The plan was introduced on February 20 in response to a determination by a three-judge District Court that the new plan must be drafted and presented by March 1, 1968.

It was discussed briefly, but not really debated in both Houses of the New York legislature on February 26, passed after a 10-minute debate in the Senate and a slightly longer but perfunctory debate in the Assembly.

It was signed by the governor 90 minutes after it had been passed by the Second House.

There were substantial majorities for the legislation in both Houses and by both parties in each House.

There was no real doubt as to the decision made in advance that this was the legislation that would be accepted by the New York State legislature in 1968.

The principles of congressional districting that had been outlined by this Court or that are, we believe, in the prospect of being defined are several.

First, substantial population equality is required.

Second, to the extent that there is comparison with state legislative reapportionment, the deviations for congressional districsing-- districts should be and ordinarily will be smaller than in state legislative districting.