Gaffney v. Cummings (1973)

Gaffney v. Cummings (1973)

Case Summary

In this case the Court reviewed a Connecticut redistricting plan that had been held unconstitutional by the District Court. The plan had drawn roughly equal districts, but had taken into account municipal lines as well as “political fairness”, resulting in a total maximum deviation of 1.81% for Senate districts and 7.83% for assembly districts. The plan “also consciously and overtly adopted and followed a policy of “political fairness,” which aimed at a rough scheme of proportional representation of the two major political parties.” At the district level the court held that “the deviations from equality of populations of the Senate and House districts are not justified by any sufficient state interest and that the Plan denies equal protection of the law to voters in the districts of greater population. The court also found that “the policy of ‘partisan political structuring’, cannot be approved as a legitimate reason for violating the requirement of numerical equality of population in districting.” The Supreme Court reversed the ruling.


The Court reached to major holdings. First, exact equality between districts was not required for state redistricting as it is for Congressional districts. Second, political boundaries and “political fairness” could justify deviations from perfect population equality. In regards to the first ruling, the court held that “appellees’ showing of numerical deviations from population equality among the Senate and House districts in this case failed to make out a prima facie violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, whether those deviations are considered alone or in combination with the additional fact that another plan could be conceived with lower deviations.” The Court “concluded that there are fundamental differences between congressional districting under Art. I and the Wesberry line of cases on the one hand, and, on the other, state legislative reapportionments governed by the Fourteenth Amendment and Reynolds v. Sims and its progeny.” Noting that the “dichotomy between the two lines of cases has consistently been maintained,” the Court concluded that “the constitutionality of Virginia’s legislative redistricting plan was not to be judged by the more stringent standards that Kirkpatrick and Wells made applicable to congressional reapportionment, but instead by the equal protection test enunciated in Reynolds v. Sims.” Reynolds had found that “districts in state reapportionments be “as nearly of equal population as is practicable… so long as the divergences from a strict population standard are based on legitimate considerations incident to the effectuation of a rational state policy, some deviations from the equal-population principle are constitutionally permissible with respect to the apportionment of seats in either or both of the two houses of a bicameral state legislature.” The Court went on to determine that both municipal lines and political fairness constituted “legitimate considerations” under this test. In regards to political considerations in drawing lines, the Court was “quite unconvinced that the reapportionment plan… violated the Fourteenth Amendment because it attempted to reflect the relative strength of the parties in locating and defining election districts.” The Court determined that “neither we nor the district courts have a constitutional warrant to invalidate a state plan, otherwise within tolerable population limits, because it undertakes, not to minimize or eliminate the political strength of any group or party, but to recognize it and, through districting, provide a rough sort of proportional representation in the legislative halls of the State.” However, “State legislative districts may be equal or substantially equal in population and still be vulnerable under the Fourteenth Amendment” because “a districting statute otherwise acceptable, may be invalid if it is “invidiously discriminatory’.” That is to say that it was “employed to minimize or cancel out the voting strength of racial or political elements of the voting population.

Impact on Redistricting

The Court’s ruling that State redistricting plans are held to a lower standard for population equality than Congressional districts has been an important development in redistricting law. Under this case law, state redistricting has a significant degree of flexibility not found on the state level. What considerations qualify as “legitimate considerations”, however, has been an issue of contention, and the Court’s holding regarding political fairness had to be further expounded in later cases.