Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath


While Congress determines each state’s allotted number of representatives, each state draws the lines of its congressional districts. A few states early in their history experimented with at-large elections to maximize their clout in the House, but Congress quickly passed a law to require election from single-member districts. That method reflects the American constitutional tradition, dating back to colonial times, of tying representation to local political units and geographical areas, with their inhabitants voting for one of their own. Although the Constitution does not explicitly require members of the House to live in the districts that they represent (hence, the possibility of at-large elections), residence in the district is a practical requirement. Jon Ossoff, a Democratic candidate in a 2017 special election for a congressional seat in Georgia was found not to reside in that district, a fact that was publicized by his opponent. Despite massive out-of-state financial support, Ossoff lost, and his failure to live in the district likely contributed to that loss.

States also apportion their state legislative districts and determine how local electoral districts are apportioned. State constitutions typically provide for regular reapportionment and fix who–legislatures, courts, commissions–is to conduct that reapportionment. Local districts, such as county commissioners, school boards, and junior college districts, are included in this process, even if they perform multiple functions, as long as one of those functions is legislative and the body is elected by districts. The Supreme Court has recognized one exclusion, in Ball v. James (1981), for certain special governmental units that have only limited legislative powers, such as water districts. For those, voting and representation can be apportioned on the basis of amount of water rights or use, rather than population. The distinction between special and general governmental bodies is none-too-obvious, however.

In the 1960s, another wave of discontent arose over voting and representation, originating in litigation over racial discrimination. For many years, the Supreme Court had stayed out of the “political thicket” of legislative apportionment about which Justice Felix Frankfurter had warned in Colegrove v. Green in 1946. Constitutional challenges to legislative apportionment were dismissed as “non-justiciable political questions,” meaning that they were not suitable for resolution by courts. The reason was republicanism. Voting and representation are quintessential expressions of self-government, determined by consent of the governed through direct participation in voting or through representative bodies, such as constitutional conventions or, at least, legislatures. Unelected judicial mandarins accountable only to their conscience imposing a system of government on society fundamentally undercuts the modern consensual basis of the legitimacy of the state.

Another problem was that republicanism requires neither some particular system of voting, nor a specific scheme of representation. Hence, voting qualifications are addressed in clear constitutional provisions. Changes to voting qualifications, at least at the level of the U.S. Constitution, with a few controversial exceptions, have been produced through explicit and formal amendments. Matters of representation, as well, are addressed in express manner in a few rather terse and specific provisions.

Beyond those basics, the Constitution has left such political issues to the political process, particularly in the several states. Especially regarding representation, the Constitution only requires that the states have republican forms of government. We know what a republican form is not, namely, hereditary monarchy or aristocracy. But we do not know what it is. Must representation be based on districts? If so, must these be single-member? Must representatives be elected by a majority, or does a plurality suffice? At the state or local level, must it be based on residents, adult residents, citizens, registered voters, actual voters, or something else? Must all districts be drawn on the basis of population equality only? May the system give recognition or accommodation to political subdivisions; cohesive racial, ethnic, religious, or cultural communities; organized societal subgroups, such as labor unions, business or professional associations, or military veterans; or wealthier areas that contribute more to the maintenance of the political community through their taxes? Most of these variants have occurred in the constitutions of the several states or in current or former republican systems around the world.

Finally, judges approach such issues through the language, methodology, and epistemology of the law. Lawsuits produce winners and losers and deal in absolutes. In constitutional litigation, there is the additional complication that the Constitution confers a certain moral legitimacy on the winner and concurrent illegitimacy on the loser. These institutional factors tend to produce arguments and results that lurch towards conceptual absolutes and hard attitudes rather than compromise, flexibility, and nuance. Representation often requires the balancing of numerous competing interests, particularly in a political system that, through its Madisonian roots, is consciously designed to pit temporary and changing coalitions of diverse self-interested factions against each other.

An expert on constitutional law, and member of the Southwestern Law School faculty, Professor Joerg W. Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums, and serves as a Constituting America Fellow. Read more from Professor Knipprath at:

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