The Tennessee Constitution requires apportionment of both houses of the state legislature on the basis of population after the census every 10 years. However, no apportionment had been carried out in this manner since a 1901 statute was instituted to apportion members of the legislature among the state’s 95 counties, in spite of changes in population growth and the movement of large numbers of people from rural areas to urban areas of the state. As a result, by 1960, the state’s House districts varied in population from 3,454 to 79,301, and the state’s Senate districts varied in population from 39,727 to 237,905.
The mayor of Nashville, a county judge, and residents of several Tennessee urban areas filed suit in federal court against Joe C. Carr, the Tennessee Secretary of State, and other state officials. They argued that the 1901 Tennessee apportionment law denied them the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. They sought to have the apportionment law declared unconstitutional and to obtain an injunction restraining the conduct of further elections under the law. The complainants also requested the court to order an election at large for members of the state legislature or, as an alternative, to order an election with equitably apportioned legislative districts based on the most recent census figures.
A three-judge U.S. District Court dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction based on the 1946 case of Colegrove v. Green where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal courts did not have jurisdiction to hear cases involving the drawing of legislative districts because this was a “political question” to be answered by the elected branches of government. The plaintiffs then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.