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There was a landmark US Supreme Court case in 1964 called Reynolds vs. Sims. It states that voting districts for state legislative chambers must have equal population in every state.

This raises the question about the actual US Senate. I am wondering if the idea of making states with very different populations (California and Texas have a total of 70 million people, while Vermont and Wyoming have just around 1 million) have the same representations

I am not saying that the Senate benefits Republicans (it does, and that is not my opinion), I am saying that it seems at odds with Reynolds vs Sims, Wesberry vs Sanders, etc.

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  • It doesn’t violate Reynolds.. because Reynolds.. doesn’t apply to the Senate. The Senate’s Make-up is determined by the constitution and SCOTUS doesn’t have the authority to change it. Only the Amendment process can do that. May 30, 2021 at 21:18
  • Yet Another Question demonstrating how people so fundamentally misunderstand the United States.
    – RonJohn
    May 31, 2021 at 0:24

3 Answers 3

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Reynolds vs Sims was decided based on the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which only governs the states

The Equal Protection clause reads

nor shall any State ... deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws

It says nothing about the federal government (likely because the federal government has very little to do with voting procedures). As a consequence, this clause has no bearing on the US Senate.

Even if it did, the US Senate composition is determined by the Constitution. It's hard to argue that the rules established by the Constitution are unconstitutional unless an amendment specifically overrules them.

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    The 5th Amendment has a similar Equal Protection Clause for the national government. But even if it could be argued that this implicitly overruled the disproportionate composition of the Senate (and ignoring that the 17th Amendment later reiterated the old rule), the composition of the Senate is the one thing that cannot be changed by an amendment! (See the very end of Article 5, which lays out the amendment process. An amendment could change the number of Senators or change the powers of the Senate, but could not make its composition proportionate.) May 30, 2021 at 0:57
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    @TobyBartels " and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate." To me that sounds like an amendment could change the Senate, if it was ratified by every state first. May 30, 2021 at 1:11
  • True, there is a loophole there. Arguably, an amendment requiring proportionate representation wouldn't even have to be ratified by California. May 30, 2021 at 1:28
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    @TobyBartels You would run into trouble later on if, for example, Texas later surpassed California in terms of population, where California would still be constitutionally guaranteed at least as many Senators as Texas.
    – Andrew Ray
    May 30, 2021 at 14:34
  • @TobyBartels The Fifth Amendment has no Equal Protection Clause. Courts have sort of forced one in there through substantive due process, but the text is silent on it.
    – cpast
    May 31, 2021 at 1:30
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No. The Reynolds v. Sims case applies strictly to State governments. The structure of the Senate is clearly described in the Constitution (indeed the "two Senators per State is one of the only parts of the constitution that has a "double lock" of being unamendable).

The essential difference between the US senate and various State legislatures is that each separate state is a Unitary Republic, but the USA is a Federal Republic. The members of the state of Virginia (for example) are the citizens of Virginia. The members of the USA are the 50 States. The Supreme court felt it was correct to apply the "Equal protection clause" to states' voting and apportionment procedures, and rejected the argument that states should base their apportionment on the Federal Government. The key quote is

The superficial resemblance between one of the Alabama apportionment plans and the legislative representation scheme of the Federal Congress affords no proper basis for sustaining that plan, since the historical circumstances which gave rise to the congressional system of representation, arising out of compromise among sovereign States, are unique and without relevance to the allocation of seats in state legislatures.

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  • The different allocation of power in the House of Representatives and the Senate was among other things designed to balance power between different constituencies. Having a state senate with the same number of votes for each county, whether large or small, served a very similar function. Is there any evidence in the debates around the Fourteenth Amendment that would suggest that it was intended to deprive rural areas of their ability to check urban areas' power?
    – supercat
    May 29, 2021 at 23:40
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    The 14th is intended to ensure that African American former slaves had the same rights as other Americans. The districting was intended to ensure that black Americans had much less voting power than white Americans, and this is why the 14th was considered to be applicable.
    – James K
    May 30, 2021 at 0:14
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    Requiring that at least one body of the legislature base representation uniformly on population may be justifiable, but the purpose of having a bicameral legislature is to ensure that any legislation must satisfy more than one cross section of the population. Having a bicameral legislature where both bodies base representation purely on population undermines the whole purpose of having a bicameral legislature. Besides, Gerrymandering is far more racially discriminatory than e.g. giving every county the same number of state senators.
    – supercat
    May 30, 2021 at 1:31
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    You're still trying to debate with me like I'm a justice on the court. I'm not! Nor are you. But in the specific case on whether Alabama could distribute state senate seats in a way that is analogous to the distribution of Federal Senates seats the court was quite clear. In a n 8:1 majority they said "No". And that does create a precedent which lower courts can refer to. Now I get that you think that was an incorrect decision. I'm reporting the SCOTUS interpretation of the law, not yours.
    – James K
    May 30, 2021 at 16:59
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    @supercat "The Supreme Court's actual authority is limited to resolving issues between the particular appellees that appear before it." That is not correct. The Supreme Court's decisions set binding precedent. Lower courts are required to obey and apply Supreme Court precedent. Failure to follow binding precedent is a violation of the judicial oath.
    – cpast
    May 31, 2021 at 1:32
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No.

As the other answers mention, the ruling does not apply to the federal government, but rather only to the states. The equal representation of each state is defined by the Constitution itself and, therefore, it cannot possibly be unconstitutional.

However, it goes beyond that, even. The equal representation of each state in the Senate was a key compromise without which some of the original 13 colonies would not have agreed to ratify the Constitution (and, thus, join the current version of the U.S.) in the first place. The compromise was deemed so fundamental that a special provision of the Constitution was added in that specifically prevents this from being changed without the consent of every state.

no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate.

End of Article V of the U.S. Constitution

Any other provision of the U.S. Constitution can be changed through one of the processes described in Article V, wherein either 2/3 of each house of the Congress or a convention called by 2/3 of the states propose an amendment, which, upon ratification by 3/4 of the states, becomes part of the Constitution. However, changing the equal representation of each state in the Senate would require every state to consent, per the above stipulation at the end of Article V. And, obviously, that's not going to happen.

Simply put, even if Reynolds v. Sims had been intended to apply to the U.S. Senate, which it was not, it would have itself been unconstitutional and unenforceable (and any justice crazy enough to issue such a decision would probably have been impeached and replaced immediately.) The U.S. Constitution is very clear on the point that the Senate, not only can, but must be apportioned with equal representation from each state (and, specifically, that it must be 2 Senators from each state.) The Constitution describes this requirement quite simply:

The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each state

Article I, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution

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  • This clause from Article I, Section 3, is no longer relevant, because it was replaced by the Seventeenth Amendment.
    – Rick Smith
    May 31, 2021 at 2:47
  • @RickSmith Technically true, but kind of irrelevant, since that particular part is literally the exact same words in both places. The part that changed was how they were chosen (legislature appointment to direct election,) not the composition. If the 17th amendment had changed the composition, then it would not have been constitutional, per Article V, unless ratified by every state (the odds of which would have been approximately zero.)
    – reirab
    May 31, 2021 at 19:49

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