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Entries about Minnesota history from MNopedia are made available through a partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society and with funding from the Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

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

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.

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.

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 05/11/2020 - 08:22 pm.

    Curious, as of late the SCOTUS has chosen to do nothing about Gerry gerrymandering at a state level, However you cite a trip to the SCOTUS and a ruling. Seems our latest SCOTUS either has no cajones or chooses to ignore judicial issues when they won’t benefit the right wing!

  2. Submitted by BK Anderson on 05/12/2020 - 08:11 am.

    This is great stuff. One notes that at every step it took intervention by the federal courts to resolve the impasse.

    It appears that the gerrymandering battles of the past revolved around rural vs. urban factions. Today’s battles are exclusively along partisan lines, with the Repubs openly declaring that their state gerrymanders are intended to disadvantage Dem candidates. Of course, it is the case that Repubs now tend to dominate the rural vote, but the battle is still a partisan one.

    The difference between redistricting battles then and now is that the democratically illegitimate 5 man “conservative” majority on the US Supreme Court has recently ruled that federal courts have no jurisdiction to determine whether partisan gerrymanders are unconstitutional, thus giving the Repub party carte blanche to continue its nationwide scheme to utilize such gerrymanders to maintain its power as a minority faction in many states, most notably Wisconsin.

    This means that the burden of resolving the constitutionality of partisan gerrymanders now falls on the supreme court of each state, meaning that (unlike the past) we will not have a uniform federal standard. This sort of dis-unification and fragmentation of the nation is just another cost of the horrendous conservative movement.

    • Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 05/12/2020 - 08:44 am.

      We had a uniform federal standard for gerrymandering? When?

      • Submitted by BK Anderson on 05/12/2020 - 09:59 am.

        I guess I was unclear.

        Baker v. Carr (“one man, one vote”) was a uniform federal standard that made determinations of state legislative districts much more uniform. Thanks to the illegitimate 5 man Roberts’ majority we now cannot have a similar uniform standard for partisan gerrymandering.

        Furthermore, it’s very clear the none of the Roberts’ Five would have agreed with a decision like Baker v. Carr. Undermining (not aiding) democratic processes is one of their most consistent goals.

        • Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 05/12/2020 - 10:48 am.

          One-man, one-vote is a simple standard to enforce as it is easy and straightforward to measure.

          There was no straightforward measure for gerrymandering presented to SCOTUS during any of the gerrymandering trials. Did you have a measure in mind? Or, how should the Court rule on such matters?

          • Submitted by BK Anderson on 05/12/2020 - 12:02 pm.

            You’re invited to read the lower court rulings, Ray, all of which found that cogent standards using accepted statistical methods were available to the courts in resolving the issue. Only the five “conservative” members of Trump/McConnell Court affected to throw up their hands and say it was all quite beyond the capabilities of the (federal) courts.

            This was a purely political ruling by a deeply partisan Court, undertaken to aid ongoing anti-democratic strategies of the conservative movement and its wholly-owned party. Believe it or don’t, but it’s not really in doubt.

            • Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 05/12/2020 - 12:24 pm.

              You are incorrect, BK. I’ve read the rulings and studied the gerrymandering measures. There were no cogent standards presented. That is why I asked which standard you were referring to.

              The Rucho et al rulings were no different than Davis v. Bandemer, where one political scientist wrote “the Supreme Court let stand an admittedly partisan gerrymander of Indiana by the GOP. The majority decision (signed by Justices White, Brennan, Marshall, and Blackmun)
              held that although the gerrymander had a “discriminatory intent”, not enough evidence existed to demonstrate a “discriminatory effect”.

              Proving gerrymandering is much more difficult than simply looking at a plan.

              • Submitted by BK Anderson on 05/13/2020 - 07:57 am.

                Oh come on, I can’t believe you can say this with a straight face or actually believe it. When one considers the extremely complicated evidentiary analysis courts routinely perform on a daily basis in dozens of areas of the law, the statistical analysis being used to prove extreme partisan gerrymandering is a piece of cake, as all the lower federal courts (and now numerous state courts) have concluded.

                Ditto with determining a standard for proving a constitutional violation, which all the lower courts had been consistently homing in on until the Roberts Five found the effort to be “impossible”. Surely not every test need be a “bright line” one in order to be valid or capable of application.

                And it was especially absurd (and corrupt) for Roberts and his Repubs to primly and piously proclaim partisan gerrymandering a great evil to be avoided, yet conclude that the federal courts were utterly helpless to address the evil, especially when the evil (by its very nature) cannot be solved by the elective branches or the democratic process, since the entire goal of the partisan exercise is to frustrate such efforts and entrench rule by minority faction.

                Leave aside the fact that the same parade of difficulties was prophesied by the dissenters in Baker v. Carr–and quite wrongly as it turns out!

                • Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 05/13/2020 - 10:27 am.

                  The lower courts are not SCOTUS. If SCOTUS ruled favorably in Rucho, SCOTUS would be determining the makeup of Congress. That’s a dangerous line to cross when it comes to separation of powers.

                  How is the Court supposed to rule when a state’s plan is near that “bright line” that doesn’t exist? The lick your finger and stick it in the air method? That’s why I keep asking for a specific gerrymandering measure (as Justice Kennedy did). BTW, statistical methods show intent, not harm.

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