Turner v. Arkansas (1991)

Turner v. Arkansas, 784 F. Supp. 585 (E.D. Ark. 1991), a 1991 decision by the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the Eastern District of Arkansas, was the culmination of a battle over the drawing of congressional districts within the state, one that reflected the growing challenges states faced in the reapportionment process required after each decennial census.

The dispute stemmed from challenges to the redistricting effort that had been undertaken by the Arkansas General Assembly in Act 1220 of 1991. The plaintiffs Jessie Turner, Christine Brownlee, Jack Foster, Alan Smith, and Freddie Lyon argued that the plan violated the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution as well as the federal Voting Rights Act—and most importantly ran afoul of the “one person, one vote” standard for apportionment that had been previously established by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In many ways, Turner v. Arkansas retraced a similar legal battle in the 1980s. While the legal challenge that followed the 1990 census was simply a matter of reapportioning the existing districts so as to be in compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court’s “one person, one vote” dictate, much of the 1991 effort and the court’s ruling was based on the principles and approach of the 1982 decision in Doulin v. White.

The case is of particular interest because it reflected the range of factors that go into efforts to achieve the U.S. Supreme Court’s edict while at the same time keeping communities as intact as possible in each district. The court reviewed the options available, keeping in mind the fact that the ultimate responsibility for establishing district boundaries belongs to the legislature.

After considering the eight submitted plans, the district court upheld the apportionment option whose deviation was 0.73 percent. However, given that the courts had previously said that the “one person, one vote” standard was only one factor, it was the preferred option when coupled with the fact that the plan required the fewest number of communities that had to be switched from one district to another—a central concern in the Doulin ruling, as well as a principle deemed an “important state interest” under apportionment guidelines previously adopted by the Arkansas General Assembly.

The court explained its decision in Turner by noting that while the variance was larger, that option achieved the legitimate state objective of attempting to keep counties and voters in the same district to which they had been assigned under the previous redistricting plan. The judges acknowledged that it was not an easy call—and in fact, the district court admitted that it was a close case, giving credit to the opponents of Act 1220, saying that they had done a skillful job of highlighting the weaknesses of the defendant’s case. But those weaknesses notwithstanding, given that Act 1220 represented the legislature’s attempt to address the issue, the court believed that it had an obligation to defer to the decision of the Arkansas legislature. The court considered the guideline decisions that had been made by the legislature relating to the redistricting matter to be legitimate and reasonable and theirs to decide.

For additional information:
Ault, Larry. “Ruling Upholds Redistricting Plan, Resolves Lawsuit.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, November 16, 1991, p. 6B.

“Blacks Appeal Federal Ruling Upholding Redistricting Plan.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, December 11, 1991, p. 5B.

Doulin v. White, 528 F. Supp. 1323 (E.D. Ark. 1982).

Morris, Scott. “Dump Redistricting Lawsuits, Bryant Says.” Arkansas Gazette, July 16, 1991, p. 2B.

Turner v. State of Ark., 784 F. Supp. 585 (E.D. Ark. 1991).

William H. Pruden III
Ravenscroft School


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