State Courts and Democracy: The Role of State Courts in the Battle for Inclusive Participation in the Electoral Process
The Honorable George Bundy Smith
As recently as 1962, the United States Supreme Court declined to rule on challenges to legislative apportionment schemes that created grossly disproportionate electoral districts. When, in the seminal decision Baker v. Carr, the Supreme Court held such challenges to be justiciable, the federal courts in this country took on a new and important role. In this Brennan Lecture, Judge Smith explores the context in which this reapportionment “revolution” emerged and developed, in particular highlighting the symbiotic relationship between the reapportionment struggle and the struggle for African American civil rights.
Smith turns his attention to the role state courts have played in these twin revolutions. He begins by noting that the federal reapportionment decisions had important state court antecedents. He then argues that contemporary judges–both state and federal–play two crucial roles in the struggle for inclusive participation in the electoral process. First, judges are required to maintain constant vigilance to ensure that the level playing field promised by Justice Brennan in Baker v. Carr becomes and remains a reality. Second, judges must ensure that the Federal Constitution, state constitutions, and the Voting Rights Act are enforced to prevent discrimination against African Americans and other minorities. As Judge Smith concludes, successful performance of each of these two functions is necessary to ensure that African Americans and other historically oppressed minorities become a meaningful part of American democracy.