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Supreme Court History in 'More Perfect:' Voting Rights and a Broken Justice

Welcome to our second 'More Perfect' recap, a look at the most interesting historical tidbits from NPR's new Supreme Court-focused podcast. Today's episode delves into the story behind Baker v. Carr, the landmark case that gave us "one man, one vote," rejecting the argument that legislative redistricting was an issue reserved for politicians, not courts. And, according to "More Perfect," it's a case that drove one justice from the bench and may have killed another.

It's a timely history, too, given the resurgence of electoral battles in the past months. In April, the Supreme Court rejected the contention that "one man, one vote" meant "one voter, one vote," throwing out a challenge redistricting in Texas. And voting rights continue to be a source of controversy in the courts. In the past few weeks, appellate courts have thrown out restrictive voting laws in Texas, North Dakota, and North Carolina.

Baker v. Carr? More Like Whittaker v. Himself

Before we dive in, an aside about this episode's premise: Baker v. Carr is described as "a little case" decision, but also the "Pandora's box" that lead to Supreme Court politicization. That's a bit simplistic, to say the least. Practitioners might remember that just 25 years before Baker v. Carr, F.D.R. had threatened to pack the Supreme Court in order to end the court's rejection of his New Deal plans, or that way back in 1804, Justice Samuel Chase became the only Supreme Court justice to ever be impeached, on accusations that he ruled based on politics, not law -- just to give two examples.

But, hey it's pop law, not a master's course in Supreme Court history.

So why the focus on Baker v. Carr at all? It's the case Chief Justice Warren cited, way back in 1969, as the most important of his career. And it not only popped open that Pandora's box (or not), according to this episode of "More Perfect," the case ruined one, possibly two, Supreme Court justices.

Tasked with balancing the limits of court intervention in the electoral system with civil rights of voters, Justice Charles Whittaker, the Court's moderate swing vote, an early-day Justice Kennedy, was driven to a nervous breakdown. Indeed, he left the Court because of the case. And one of Whittaker's main tormentors, and one of the Court's strongest opponents to the outcome in Baker v. Carr, Justice Frankfurter, may have even died because of the case.

Historical Highlights from Episode Two:

The Background:

  • Justice Frankfurter wasn't the friendliest man on the Supreme Court. For example, he always dropped clerks' deliveries, making the clerk bend over to pick them up. It was a "wiener move," according to host Jab Abumrad.
  • Justice William Douglas was a bit of a philanderer and also, as the podcast describes him, "a prick." He was married four times, each relationship ending when he started an affair with the woman next in line for marriage.
  • Justices Frankfurter and Douglas hated each other.
  • Caught between the two was Justice Whittaker, who, as a young man growing up on a Midwest farm, apparently practiced law by lecturing his farm animals.
  • Justice Whittaker attended law school without ever having gone to high school or college. He paid his way through school with money he made selling squirrel, possum, and raccoon pelts.

The Case:

  • When Baker v. Carr came before the Court in 1961, Tennessee hadn't reapportioned its electoral districts since 1901. That led to a gross imbalance in political power. A vote in rural, whiter Tennessee had the same impact as 23 votes in urban, diverse cities like Memphis.
  • During the Baker conference, Justice Frankfurter went on a 90-minute lecture directed at swaying Justice Whittaker. In another account, he lectured him for four hours.
  • Justice Whittaker, under stress, apparently started speaking as though dictating a letter or opinion. "Hello Judith. Comma. It's very nice to meet you. Period."
  • During Baker's rehearing, Justice Frankfurter spoke 170 times, to Justice Whittaker's 17. Oral arguments lasted four hours.

The Breakdown:

  • The stress over the case led Whittaker to flee D.C. He headed to Wisconsin, where he sat on the edge of lake in silence. He spent three weeks there.
  • According to his son, when he came back to Washington, D.C., he was "borderline suicidal."
  • Justice Douglas, concerned about Whittaker's nervous breakdown, may have convinced him to check into a hospital. Soon after, he resigned, at the direction of his physician.
  • And, after all that, Justice Whittaker never voted in Baker v. Carr. Justice Frankfurter's stand to keep the judiciary out of districting was a massive failure. The case was decided 6-2; only he and Justice Harlan dissented. It was the last case Frankfurter ever heard.

Frankfurter had a stroke not too long after. According to Archibald Cox, he blamed it on his loss in Baker v. Carr.

Justice Douglas did fine, though. He went on to become the longest serving Supreme Court justice ever.

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