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One Person, One Vote

About the Film

An examination of the Supreme Court’s dilemmas and tensions as it stepped into the “political thicket” of voting and representational equality, establishing the practice of what has become a core American principle: “One person, one vote.”

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It has the echo of a core American belief. It rings with the same distinctively American clarion call for equality and individual empowerment that reaches back through the ages to the nation’s founding: “…of the people, by the people, for the people”, “All men are created equal”…

But it wasn’t until 1963 that “One person, one vote” became a widely articulated core principle of the Constitution when it was first spoken by Chief Justice Earl Warren’s Supreme Court.

The Warren Court transformed the nation’s political and social landscape in the middle of the twentieth century, applying the Constitution’s expressions of fairness and equality to American life in sometimes startling, courageous, and even jarring ways. But no decisions were as important to the nation or as grueling to the members of the Court as those surrounding equality in voting and representation, known collectively as the Apportionment Cases.

Starting with the Court’s 1962 decision in Baker v. Carr and culminating in 1964 with the case of Reynolds v. Sims, the value of “One person, one vote,” once brought to light, seemed so profoundly rooted in the Constitution its practice became “inevitable.”

Yet at the time these decisions were anything but “inevitable.” It was a wrenching, agonizing time for the Justices. To establish equality in voting and representation, the Court had to overcome deeply rooted political traditions throughout the entire nation, entrenched political powers fiercely opposed to change, and its own precedent, Colegrove v. Green, that some members of the Court believed with every bone in their bodies protected the very practice of democracy in America – as well as the integrity and viability of the Court.

Through all of this, the Chief Justice understood the urgent necessity to press ahead. Of all of the groundbreaking rulings his Court rendered throughout his tenure as Chief Justice, he called the Court’s choice to tackle this issue in Baker, its “most vital decision.”

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Further Reading

Chief Justice Earl Warren

The Warren Court, 1953-1969

Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter

Associate Justice William Brennan

Register to Vote

Contact your Congressional Representative

Contact your Senator

Learn More About Your State Government

Credits

Producer, Writer, and Narrator, Robe Imbriano
Associate Producer, Maria E. Matasar-Padilla
Editors, Brad Smith and Marc Tidalgo
Graphics Animators, Victoria Nece and Hiroaki Sasa
Camera, Edward Marritz
Production Associate, Gregory Blanc
Coordinating Producer, Christina Lowery
Sound, Mark Mandler
Music, Ben Decter and Gavin Allen
Senior Producer, Kayce Freed Jennings
Executive Producer, Tom Yellin

One Man Changes the Constitution

About the Film

In the mid-twentieth century, a landmark Supreme Court case proves the Constitution’s resilience. In Gideon v. Wainwright, one man who thinks he was denied a basic right seeks the help of the Supreme Court. Clarence Earl Gideon was sitting in prison after having been found guilty of stealing pocket change and some liquor from a pool hall where he was known as one of the regulars. It was bad enough that he claimed he was innocent; but he also claimed that his Constitutional rights had been violated by the very court that tried and convicted him.

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It was Gideon’s belief – his other conviction, if you will – that the Constitution guaranteed him the right to a lawyer to defend him in court but the judge who presided over his trial refused to appoint counsel to assist him. As it happened, until that time, the courts agreed that Gideon was wrong.


As judges interpreted the Constitution until 1963, not every defendant throughout the 50 states could claim such a right. But lightning comes from the ground up. And when a yellow piece of prison stationary with a poor man’s scribblings landed in the mailroom of the highest court in the land, arguing that he should be heard, there was enough change in the air to suggest that the time for a universal right to counsel had come.

Further Reading

Look at Gideon’s handwritten petition to the Supreme Court, housed at the National Archives

Read the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of the Right to Counsel

Read about the history and current struggles to protect the Right to Counsel

Credits

Producer and Writer, Robe Imbriano
Associate Producer, Maria E. Matasar-Padilla
Editors, Sak Costanzo and Liz Mermin
Graphics Animator, Stevie Clifton
Director of Photography, Edward Marritz
Narrator, Erik Todd Dellums
Host, Dan Harris
Production Associate, Konstantinos Kambouroglou
Coordinating Producer, Gabrielle Tenenbaum
Sound, Mark Mandler
Music, Gavin Allen and Ben Decter
Associate Editor, Marc Tidalgo
Senior Editorial Producer, Todd Brewster
Senior Producer, Kayce Freed Jennings
Executive Producer, Tom Yellin