Case Summary

Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, North Dakota's legislative apportionment map was the subject of various state and federal lawsuits alleging constitutional and statutory violations related to the plan's population variances, its failure to reflect shifts in population that had occurred, and its use of multimember House and Senate districts. In 1972, a three judge panel for the U.S. District Court for the District of North Dakota struck down the State's legislative districts under the Equal Protection Clause and appointed a commission to draft and implement its own remedial legislative map that was originally to be used only for the 1972 election, but which ultimately became permanent in 1974 when the North Dakota legislature's remedial plans either failed to pass or were rejected by voters in a referendum. The district court's "final" plan contained a 20% population variance between the largest and smallest senatorial districts and created, for the first time, five multimember senatorial districts which had previously only been used in House districts. Several North Dakota voters challenged the validity of the district court's "final" plan under the 14th Amendment, alleging that neither the substantial population variance nor the implementation of multimember senatorial districts were justified.

In 1975, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the district court's remedial map, finding that the district court had failed to sufficiently justify the plan's significant population variance amongst senatorial districts and their decision to implement multi-member senatorial districts in violation of the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. In its unanimous opinion, the Court conclusively held that unless there are persuasive justifications, a court ordered legislative reapportionment plan must avoid the use of multimember districts and must achieve the goal of population equality with "little more than de minimis variation." The Court also stated that court-ordered plans must be held to higher standards than a State's own plan, and where important state considerations rationally require a departure from these standards, it is the court's responsibility to articulate clearly why a plan of single-member districts with minimal population variance cannot be adopted.

Significance: When redrawing a state's legislative districts as a remedy, federal courts are subject to the same, possibly more stringent, equal population requirements as are applicable to legislatively enacted plans, including the responsibility to justify any deviations from population equality and to state their connection to rational state policies.

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U.S. Supreme Court - 420 U.S. 1 (1975)