One Person, One Vote, One Outstanding Lawyer: The Life of Bruce Terris
By Steven A. Steinbach
Based on Bruce J. Terris’s Oral History for the D.C. Circuit Historical Society
Sadly, Bruce Terris passed away shortly after we completed his oral history. I was privileged to have had the opportunity to meet, interview, and learn from this exceptionally brilliant, interesting, thoughtful, reflective, warm, and generous soul. But I am especially proud of the fact that, through this oral history, we were able to preserve for “history” Bruce’s recollections of one of the most important episodes in our nation’s constitutional story: the Supreme Court’s adoption of the one person, one vote doctrine. Beginning with Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186 (1962), and culminating in Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533 (1964), the Court upended state and federal laws that, for generations, had permitted the grossly inequitable populating of legislative districts.
Bruce was a relative newbie in the Eisenhower Solicitor General’s office when he was assigned, almost by accident, to work on the brief for Baker v. Carr. Both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations urged the Supreme Court to find reapportionment disputes to be justiciable – and the Court, reversing precedent, so concluded. A series of landmark rulings followed. Legislative reapportionment quickly became Bruce’s bailiwick. Over the years, he served as primary draftsman of virtually all of the SG briefs filed on the topic. In the process, he overcame the intense intellectual and constitutional skepticism of his boss, Solicitor General Archibald Cox. He prepped Attorney General Robert Kennedy for his maiden (and successful) Supreme Court argument in Gray v. Sanders, 372 U.S. 368 (1963), where the Court struck down Georgia’s state apportionment scheme. And Bruce himself argued before the High Court in Wesberry v. Sanders, 376 U.S. 1 (1964), where the Justices required House of Representatives districts to be equally populated. When the Wesberry decision was announced by the Supreme Court in February 1964, one of the dissenting Justices, John Marshall Harlan, observed from the bench: “I consider this occasion certainly the most solemn since I have been on the Court, and I think one would have to search the pages of history to find a case whose importance equals what we have decided today.” In historian J. Douglas Smith’s recent, definitive account, On Democracy’s Doorstep, Bruce Terris emerges, hands down, as the unsung hero of the reapportionment battles.
What was at stake in the one person, one vote controversy? In Bruce’s view, nothing less than the fairness of American participatory democracy.
I think it was enormously important for the country in both a positive way and in preventing a very negative situation. I think the positive way was that it moved political power from rural areas to the suburbs and to some extent the big cities, and I think it was crucial to this country. I think you got different kinds of people in legislatures and you got much more sophisticated people – people who are much more attuned to a country that is the most important country in the world facing enormous problems both internally and externally. I think it was absolutely crucial that that change occurred. But if it hadn’t – if you think about what if it hadn’t occurred – it had to occur. The country couldn’t continue along a line in which the legislatures became worse and worse apportioned and were essentially run by rural areas which are very unrepresentative of the country. You almost have to say to yourself somehow if this hadn’t occurred it would still have occurred. It had to occur.
Bruce’s oral history is worth reading simply to appreciate his outsized role in the formulation of what has become a bedrock doctrine of American constitutional law. But the reapportionment saga was far from the only significant moment in Bruce’s remarkable professional life. As he recounts in his oral history:
- Bruce served as co-chair of the National Conference on Law and Poverty, a milestone on the road to establishing legal services for the poor as part of the Office of Economic Opportunity.
- As Assistant Director of the National Crime Commission (also known as the Katzenbach Commission), Bruce led the effort to define and improve police-community relations. (More than a half-century later, one cannot help but reflect that the more things change, the more they stay the same.)
- He joined Vice President Humphrey’s staff, where he served as Assistant for the District of Columbia.
- Continuing his work for the District, Bruce headed the Anacostia Assistance Corporation, a nonprofit established to promote economic development, housing, and education.
- He co-founded one of the nation’s first public-interest law firms, the Center for Law and Social Policy.
- And he eventually established and headed his own law firm, which specialized in public-interest, environmental, and employment litigation.
A final thought. In reflecting back upon the six long sessions we spent together exploring Bruce’s life and recording his oral history, one poignant moment stands out. Bruce served on Robert Kennedy’s 1968 campaign for president. After the assassination, Bruce was on the memorial train that carried RFK’s body from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York to Arlington Cemetery in Washington. Even after the passage of many decades, Bruce’s recollections of that journey remained vivid – indeed, searing.
I went to the funeral, and then I got myself on the funeral train that came back. That was really a terrible experience in so many ways. We arrived in the Newark station, and a person was killed on the tracks, which of course was horrifying. That got the people that were running the railroad to slow down the train.
I’m not sure exactly, but it took something like eight or nine hours to get to Washington. It went extremely slowly. In all the cities, of course, the train stations were packed. But the most impressive thing were the people in the countryside, most of whom had been waiting for hours, four, five, six hours.
I’ll never forget – there was one hillside – there was one family – had a sign saying – “Goodbye, Bobby, we love you.”
During all the rest of his oral history, Bruce spoke at a-mile-a-minute clip. But it took him forty-five seconds to get through those final twenty words. At which point, we turned off the tape recorder, as Bruce Terris quietly wept.