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It only took two interventions by the U.S. Supreme Court for Minnesota to revamp its legislative districts

By the late 1950s, populations of House districts ranged from 7,290 residents to 107,246, and Senate districts from 16,878 to 153,455.

Minnesota State Capitol
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Minnesota State Capitol
By the late 1950s Minnesota’s legislative districts — last configured in 1913 — had become alarmingly imbalanced. Though the state constitution required the districts to be drawn “in proportion to population,” the populations of House districts ranged from 7,290 residents to 107,246, and Senate districts from 16,878 to 153,455. It would take fourteen years, three federal lawsuits, three special sessions of the legislature, three governor’s vetoes, one trip to the Minnesota Supreme Court, and one to the US Supreme Court to fix the problem, and then temporarily. Twenty years and one more governor’s veto later, the US Supreme Court intervened again.

After statehood in 1858 Minnesota’s legislature altered legislative districts in 1860, 1866, 1871, 1881, 1889, 1897, and 1913, but then stopped doing so. Between the census of 1910 (the basis for the 1913 redistricting) and the census of 1950, Minnesota’s population increased from just over two million to almost three million. The state became much more urban and suburban, but the urban and suburban areas gained no representation in the legislature.

In March 1958 citizens from the Twin Cities area sued the state, arguing that demographic changes had made the 1913 districts unconstitutional. On July 10, 1958, a panel of three federal judges ruled that the huge population differences between many house and senate districts violated the US Constitution. In its 1959 session the Minnesota legislature re-drew legislative lines, effective 1962.

In 1962 the US Supreme Court, in Baker v. Carr, made the first in a series of decisions asserting federal constitutional power over state legislative districts. These cases became known as establishing the “one person, one vote” principle. In June 1964 another set of Minnesota’s urban and suburban citizens brought a new lawsuit, challenging the 1959 reapportionment. The population range remained vast—from 24,428 to 110,520 in Senate districts, 8,343 to 56,076 in House districts. In December of 1964 another three-judge panel of federal judges ruled the 1959 districts unconstitutional and gave the legislature until 1966 to re-draw the lines.

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In the 1965 session the legislature, dominated by representatives of rural areas, passed a redistricting statute. Democratic Farmer-Labor (DFL) Governor Karl Rolvaag vetoed it, calling it a “blatant, calculated, political gerrymander.” Senator Lloyd Duxbury of Winona County challenged that veto in state court. On November 26, 1965, the Minnesota Supreme Court, by a 4-3 vote, upheld the veto.

As 1966 began Minnesota faced a November election with no lawful legislative districts in place. The plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit then asked the three-judge panel to begin the process of designing the districts itself. On January 14 the court declined: “There is adequate opportunity for the Governor and Legislature to do the job in timely fashion. They should do so.”

Governor Karl Rolvaag then called a special session of the legislature. On May 9 it passed another redistricting bill. Governor Rolvaag vetoed that one also. Finally, on May 20, the legislature approved still another redistricting bill, which became law, approved by Governor Rolvaag, on May 24.

A year after completion of the 1970 census came another lawsuit. The 1971 legislature passed a redistricting bill, but Governor Wendell Anderson vetoed it on November 1. Early in 1972 still another three-judge panel (the third) declared the 1966 legislative districts unconstitutional and took the unusual step of ordering radical changes in the legislature; along with new lines it ordered the legislature reduced in size to thirty-five Senate districts and 105 House districts. On April 29, with the 1972 elections looming, the US Supreme Court ruled that the lower court had gone too far, and sent the case back. That court acted quickly to restore the Legislature to sixty-seven Senate seats and 134 House seats (from 135), the seats in each chamber varying by a population range of only 1.8 percent.

The 1990 census prompted competing lawsuits in both state and federal court. While they were pending the legislature passed a new redistricting bill, which Governor Arne Carlson vetoed. Then the state court and the federal court issued competing redistricting plans. The US Supreme Court resolved the conflict by ruling, on February 23, 1993, in favor of the state court plan. Redistricting after the 2000 and 2010 censuses has been less contentious.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.