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Adam Cohen: Question for Judge Alito: What About One Person One Vote?

When Samuel Alito Jr. applied for a top job in the Reagan Justice Department, he explained what had attracted him to constitutional law as a college student. He was motivated, he said, "in large part by disagreement with Warren Court decisions, particularly in the areas of criminal procedure, the Establishment Clause, and reapportionment." The reapportionment cases that so upset young Mr. Alito were a series of landmark decisions that established a principle that is now a cornerstone of American democracy: one person one vote.

There has been a lot of talk about the abortion views of Judge Alito, President Bush's Supreme Court nominee. But his views on the redistricting cases may be more important. Senator Joseph Biden Jr., the Delaware Democrat who will be one of those doing the questioning when confirmation hearings begin next week, said recently that Judge Alito's statements about one person one vote could do more to jeopardize his nomination than his statements about Roe v. Wade.

Rejecting the one-person-one-vote principle is a radical position. If Judge Alito still holds this view today, he could lead the court to accept a very different vision of American democracy, one in which it would be far easier for powerful special interests to get a stranglehold on government.

Even if Judge Alito has changed his position on the reapportionment cases, the fact that he was drawn to constitutional law because of his opposition to those rulings raises serious questions about his views on democracy and equality.

The one-person-one-vote principle traces to the Supreme Court's 1962 decision in Baker v. Carr. At the time, legislative districts had wildly unequal numbers of people, and representatives from underpopulated rural districts controlled many state legislatures. In Maryland, 14 percent of the voters could elect a majority of the State Senate, and 25 percent could elect a majority of the State House. In Alabama, the county that includes Birmingham, which had 600,000 people, got the same number of state senators - one - as a county with barely 15,000 people.

In Baker v. Carr, Tennessee voters challenged their state's unequal legislative districts, which had not been redrawn in 60 years. The Supreme Court had rejected a similar claim out of Illinois in 1946, saying it did not want to enter the "political thicket." But in 1962, the Warren court decided it had to enter the thicket to vindicate the rights of Tennesseans whose votes were being unfairly diluted. It ordered Tennessee's lines redrawn.

Two years later, in Reynolds v. Sims, the court struck down Alabama's legislative districts. The Reynolds decision did what Baker had not: it established a clear mathematical standard.

The court held that the equal protection clause required that "as nearly as is practicable one man's vote" must "be worth as much as another's."

Baker v. Carr set off what a leading election law treatise calls "the reapportionment revolution." ...
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