ORALHISTORY OFBRUCE TERRIS
I. ONE PERSON, ONE VOTE
This interview is being conducted on behalf of the Oral History Project of The Historical
Society of the District of Columbia Circuit. The interviewer is Steve Steinbach, and the
interviewee is Bruce Terris. The interview took place in Bruce Terris’s office on Thursday,
May 22, 2014. This is the first interview.
MR. STEINBACH: We decided to start today by focusing on the reapportionment cases, the
Supreme Court decisions from the early 1960s establishing the one person,
one vote principle. By way of background, we’ll focus primarily on Baker v.
Carr [369 U.S. 186 (1962)], in which you, Bruce, assisted Solicitor General
Archibald Cox in arguing to the Court, and then Gray v. Sanders [372 U.S.
368 (1964)], in which you helped prepare Attorney General Robert Kennedy
for his argument before the Supreme Court, and then a case in which you
yourself argued, Wesberry v. Sanders [376 U.S. 1 (1964)]. That’s just by
way of background. I wonder if you could start by summarizing from a very
high-level perspective what the reapportionment cases were generally about.
MR. TERRIS: The United States had a system that actually was borrowed from the British,
which the British called the “Rotten Borough System.” You would think that
all congressman or all legislators in a state legislature would represent
approximately the same number of people. The theory is that when you have
a legislature, it is representative of the public as a whole. Deliberately the
United States Senate is not that way, but the House of Representatives was
intended to be approximately that way, and the state legislatures were
intended to be approximately that way. But what had happened over many,
many years – I think probably they started out roughly equal in the various
districts but they weren’t reapportioned. The legislative body involved did
not reapportion them as population shifted, and as population shifted, you
can end up with a district having a hundred times as many people as another
district, or even worse malapportionment than that. So the end result is a
legislature not at all representative of the public, and so it really was
fundamentally wrong in terms of what democracy is about.
MR. STEINBACH: This was a situation that was both at the national federal level with the House
of Representatives and the various state legislatures?
MR. TERRIS: That’s correct. And almost all state legislatures and in most of the states’
House of Representative districts.
MR. STEINBACH: You first I guess got involved in reapportionment issues when you worked at
the Solicitor General’s Office. Is that right?
MR. TERRIS: That’s correct.
MR. STEINBACH: Do you remember when you joined the SG’s Office?
MR. TERRIS: I know precisely when I joined the SG’s office. I joined the office in a sense
in the summer of 1958, a year after I graduated from law school. I say “in a
sense,” because I got a job which was considered to be a temporary job in
which I was to be kind of the handyman of the Solicitor General, not to be
actually an Assistant to the Solicitor General, which is the title that most of
the people in the office had and I guess still have, but I was to do odd jobs for
the Solicitor General, help on his speeches and things of that kind. So I was
not a regular member, and over about roughly the next year I became a fullfledged member.
MR. STEINBACH: So you were part of the Eisenhower Administration’s Solicitor General’s
MR. TERRIS: That’s correct. People were not appointed on the basis of politics. Nobody
ever asked me what my politics were when I joined it.
MR. STEINBACH: Did the Eisenhower Administration have a role, even before the Kennedy
years, in formulating a government policy on reapportionment?
MR. TERRIS: Not on the merits. Baker v. Carr came up during the Eisenhower
Administration, the very end of the Eisenhower Administration, and the
Solicitor General then was J. Lee Rankin. He was my boss when I did
personal work for him and was still my boss when I became an official
Assistant to the Solicitor General. But yes, it came up during the Eisenhower
MR. STEINBACH: Did you personally have any involvement in the reapportionment decisionmaking in the SG’s Office in the Eisenhower years?
MR. TERRIS: Yes. I handled this issue the entire time I was in the Solicitor General’s
Office. I was assigned this work not because of any special knowledge that I
had. It happened I was chosen to review the briefing in Baker v. Carr, and
once I reviewed the briefing of Baker v. Carr, every subsequent
reapportionment case, I handled the briefing in that case.
MR. STEINBACH: What position do you remember the Eisenhower Administration took on
Baker v. Carr when you were working on the briefs?
MR. TERRIS: They had the position that Colegrove v. Green [328 U.S. 549 (1946)] that
held that reapportionment wasn’t justiciable should be overruled, that it
should be justiciable, and in fact, Lee Rankin’s position I think was probably
stronger than Archibald Cox’s was.
MR. STEINBACH: Archibald Cox comes in with the Kennedy Administration to be the new
Solicitor General, and you continued in your tenure in the SG’s Office?
MR. TERRIS: Correct. Everybody’s tenure continued.
MR. STEINBACH: Were you the primary deputy in charge of the reapportionment work in the
MR. TERRIS: Certainly not officially. I’m not sure that anybody knew why some people
were chosen for a particular case. It showed up on your desk, it was your
case. All the reapportionment cases after Baker v. Carr showed up on my
desk, presumably because I was thought to know something about them
having handled the earlier cases.
MR. STEINBACH: So Archibald Cox comes on board. What do you remember about him, your
interactions with him, what was he like as a person, as Solicitor General?
MR. TERRIS: First of all, in a sense I knew Archibald Cox from Harvard Law School. I
had taken Labor Law with him, so my first sighting of him was not in the
Solicitor General’s Office. Archibald Cox was a very brilliant man and a
tremendous oral advocate, the best oral advocate I ever saw. I think there
may have been a tie or two in the Supreme Court. Now I haven’t seen a lot
of Supreme Court arguments since I left the Solicitor General’s Office, but
he was a tremendous oral advocate. He had the ability to do something I had
never seen anybody ever having the ability to do, and I suspect very few
people ever had, and that was he had the ability to lecture the Supreme Court.
That was his natural human posture.
MR. STEINBACH: And they let him get away with it.
MR. TERRIS: It would have been very difficult, very difficult, for them to not let him get
away with it. It was so much in his blood, it was like it would have taken
insulting him, it would have taken a scene virtually to have prevented him
from lecturing them. He was telling them what the law provided. There was
no doubt about what it provided, he was telling them what it provided. On
the other hand, he was not a man who had tremendous human connections
with people in the Solicitor General’s Office. He was definitely the classic
New England Yankee. I did not have many meetings with him. He was not
a man with a great sense of humor or idle talk. He certainly didn’t mention
what the baseball scores were yesterday. But he was a tremendous lawyer.
No question about that.
MR. STEINBACH: So your relation with him inside the office was largely professional rather
MR. TERRIS: Definitely. Completely professional. But I think his relationship with
everybody in the office, even much more senior people than myself, was
MR. STEINBACH: Did you work with him on matters other than reapportionment?
MR. TERRIS: Yes. I handled a wide variety of cases like everybody else in the Solicitor
General’s Office, but there were not a lot of meetings with him. I would
review a paper, it would go either to the first or second assistant, which was
the progression, then it would go to him. I would very rarely talk to him
about a case. It came up from time to time, definitely not on a weekly basis,
probably not even a monthly basis, but once in a while there would be a
meeting or I would talk to him about a specific case.
MR. STEINBACH: So on the reapportionment discussion specifically, or the question about the
government’s position on those cases, how would you summarize
Archibald Cox’s overall philosophy or his overall thoughts about where the
reapportionment decision should go from his perspective?
MR. TERRIS: He was enormously sympathetic to Felix Frankfurter’s position, which was
of course essentially that the issues were not justiciable, and if they were
justiciable, that the Court should not be digging very deeply into the merits
even if it had gotten past the justiciability issue. My description would be:
when I went to law school, those at Harvard used to talk about the notion that
at Harvard you learned what the law was. You didn’t use the law for any
particular purpose, this was the law, the majesty of the law. The people who
went to Yale, they used the law to accomplish their various positions that
they thought were good things for the country. Archibald Cox exemplified,
perfectly exemplified, that idea of what Harvard Law School was about.
Therefore he approached reapportionment that you didn’t start by saying
what’s good for this country, what should democracy in this country really
mean. He really started with legal propositions that made him not very
sympathetic to the whole notion. But he was in a very bad spot because his
two bosses, the President of the United States and the Attorney General of
the United States, had different views than that. So it was a difficult problem
MR. STEINBACH: Let’s go there next. President Kennedy had actually taken a position on
reapportionment before becoming President. What’s your recollection of
MR. TERRIS: Right. From my standpoint, I had not talked to the President about it, it
occurred before I was even around, but it was of course well known that that
was the position and very strong position of the President of the
United States. That was background when we got to the legislative
reapportionment issues. When we were dealing with Baker v. Carr and the
cases about the legislative reapportionment issues, of course I knew what the
President’s position was, but there weren’t really direct run-ins or
disagreements with Archibald Cox at that point, it’s just that I knew how
reluctant he was. I knew how he wasn’t enthusiastic about it. There was also
another unusual thing going on because the New York Times correspondent,
both for the Supreme Court and for the Department of Justice, was
Tony Lewis. Well Tony Lewis had happened to write an article when he was
a Nieman Fellow at Harvard Law School about reapportionment, and he was
taking a position through this whole time period, he was not a neutral, he was
not a journalist, he was a vigorous advocate for reapportionment, and he was
talking to Cox all the way through this rather lengthy scenario and so that
complicated the matter too for Cox and really for the Department of Justice.
MR. STEINBACH: Where does the Attorney General Robert Kennedy fit in this scenario about
MR. TERRIS: As far as I knew, he was not involved, and I don’t think he had to be
involved at the Baker v. Carr level. I might be wrong. If there were private
conversations between Cox and Kennedy, I don’t know about them.
Certainly if there were any conversations, I have no doubt what Kennedy’s
position would have been, which would have been a vigorous proponent of
the courts and therefore the Department of Justice getting into
reapportionment. Kennedy clearly got involved at the time that he argued the
only case, as far as I know the only time he was ever in court let alone in the
Supreme Court, when he argued the Georgia County Unit case. I assume that
Cox wanted him to argue that. It’s a normal rule – at least it was then, I don’t
know if it still exists – of the Attorney General handling one Supreme Court
case. Kennedy argued that case, I assume, without any friction with Cox.
MR. STEINBACH: Let’s set the stage for that by focusing a little on Baker v. Carr, where the
Supreme Court ultimately held that these questions were in fact justiciable. I
take it you were involved in the government’s brief in Baker v. Carr.
MR. TERRIS: I reviewed it.
MR. STEINBACH: Did you write it or review it, or what was your role?
MR. TERRIS: I never, and none of my colleagues ever, wrote briefs. We reviewed them,
and sometimes and frequently reviewed them heavily, but we didn’t write
them. In fact, an interesting thing here, the only case that I can remember
clearly in which there was a brief written in the Solicitor General’s Office
was the brief that was written by Archibald Cox personally on the standards
for state legislative reapportionment. I have it just a few feet from here, I
have the page proof of that brief in which Cox wrote on the front of it a note
to me which basically said, “Keep your hands off it.”
MR. STEINBACH: He wanted to write it himself.
MR. TERRIS: He had already written it. It was a page proof. But he wanted me to read it
because maybe there was a mistake somewhere, but he didn’t want me
editing his brief [laughter].
MR. STEINBACH: So on the Baker v. Carr brief which you reviewed – and the government’s
position I guess was that these kinds of questions were not political and were
in fact justiciable by the Court – did Cox argue that case?
MR. TERRIS: Yes.
MR. STEINBACH: Were you there when he argued it?
MR. TERRIS: Yes, and he walked out of the courtroom and said to me, “Frankfurter’s
MR. STEINBACH: And Frankfurter was taking a position adverse to the government – what Cox
MR. TERRIS: Right. I’ve been around a lot of lawyers in my more than 50 years of
practicing law, and people don’t come out of courtrooms and say the other
guy’s right. Your mind just won’t let you do that. It does not happen.
MR. STEINBACH: So Cox argues a position he doesn’t think is legally correct and wins the
MR. TERRIS: And wins the case [laughter].
MR. STEINBACH: Did you have any sense what his reaction was?
MR. TERRIS: Years later looking at the whole package, not just Baker v. Carr, he said the
most important cases that he was involved in were the reapportionment cases.
I think he may have forgotten how much he waivered during this process.
MR. STEINBACH: So the government emerges from Baker v. Carr with a victory. These
matters are justiciable by the courts.
MR. TERRIS: An enormous victory.
MR. STEINBACH: And the next in line I think is the case you started to talk about a second ago,
the Georgia Unit case that the Attorney General himself argued, Gray v.
Sanders. Can you tell us what the Georgia Unit system was?
MR. TERRIS: I think it was unique to the country. I never have heard of any other system,
any other state, that had this system. They had maneuvered the
reapportionment question into the Executive Branch, and the way they did it
was essentially setting up something like the Electoral College. In other
words, you got a certain number of units for winning County X, but the
counties didn’t have units that were directly representative of how many
people they had. Like in the legislature over the years, the changes in
population resulted in rural areas having too many units, far too many units,
and the cities, and particularly the suburbs, having far too few units. So you
could easily win the governorship or any of the other executive positions in
Georgia not having a majority of votes or anywhere near a majority of votes.
So that was the issue: is that constitutional?
MR. STEINBACH: So that’s the case that Attorney General Robert Kennedy argued, and what
you think is likely his only Supreme Court appearance.
MR. TERRIS: I’m almost sure it’s his only appearance.
MR. STEINBACH: You reviewed the briefs on that case.
MR. TERRIS: Correct.
MR. STEINBACH: Did you assist in preparing Attorney General Kennedy for the argument in
the Supreme Court?
MR. TERRIS: I did in a way, but I want to be very careful [as to what I did] – I spent maybe
an hour, maybe somewhat more than an hour with him. He may have had
somebody else giving some kind of help to him, although I tend to think
probably not. What I did was very light. I certainly didn’t write his
argument. I talked to him about the case, that’s what I really did, for an hour
or so. I say that because this is a man with no real experience, and he went
into the Supreme Court without notes, and he gave this argument, and it was
pretty good. I’m not going to say he was Archibald Cox. He certainly didn’t
have the posture of Cox to be able to lecture the Court in that same fashion,
but it was a pretty good argument. I can tell you when I went there on the
day of the argument and he didn’t have anybody sitting with him at counsel
table and when I saw he didn’t have any notes, I almost fainted [laughter].
MR. STEINBACH: But he conveyed the essence of what you had hoped he would tell the Court?
MR. TERRIS: Absolutely. And he did a very good job.
MR. STEINBACH: How was he received by the Justices? Do you remember that?
MR. TERRIS: I suspect the Attorney Generals generally, this is what happens with them.
The Attorney Generals come and this is a ceremonial argument, in a sense,
and the Justices know that the Attorney General is not a skilled oral advocate.
They’re obviously careful about what questions they ask; they don’t want to
look like they’re embarrassing the Attorney General, so it’s a little bit stilted.
MR. STEINBACH: What was your sense when you met with Kennedy to talk about the
preparations for the case about his convictions about the underlying issue he
MR. TERRIS: There was no question about that. He was fully into it. We’ll come to a
discussion later on about legislative reapportionment, when it became even
more clear in my mind about where he was coming from.
MR. STEINBACH: So Kennedy delivers the argument to the Court on the Georgia Unit case, and
is it your sense that he picked that case because of its significance and
importance to argue in his only Supreme Court appearance?
MR. TERRIS: I would think that probably Cox had recommended it to him. I tend to think
that Kennedy didn’t sit down with the government cases for that term, and
start looking through which one was the best. I would guess that Cox had
recommended it – and I think it was a good case for Kennedy to be arguing.
However it may also reflect that Cox wasn’t that into reapportionment. In
other words, Cox very much wanted to argue the big cases, and he argued
more cases, way more cases, than J. Lee Rankin. He used to argue two cases
in a two-week session. I think most Solicitor Generals have never done that.
It’s a very heavy burden. So he was really into arguing cases in a very heavy
way, so I think there was a little bit of, this isn’t the field that I’m most
MR. STEINBACH: And the government and Kennedy prevail in that case – and I guess you do
too since you worked on the brief – and the Supreme Court says that the
Georgia system violates the one person, one vote principle. Is that basically
MR. TERRIS: Right.
MR. STEINBACH: Let’s focus on Wesberry v. Sanders which is when you argued a
reapportionment case to the Supreme Court. What’s at issue in that case?
What were the facts?
MR. TERRIS: The facts in that was the basic legislative reapportionment, but involving the
House of Representatives. And of course the House is divided between
states, and so you can get some pretty bad [discrepancies] in how many
people are represented in different districts just because of that division
between states, but that’s in the Constitution. That can’t be changed. So the
question, though, is within a state, and particularly states with a large number
of congressmen – California, New York – that what happened was the same
kind of malapportionment I was talking about before. You get some districts
that would have a couple hundred thousand people and then another district
that would have two or three times as many people. That would come from
changes in population and then the state legislature not doing what it’s
supposed to do to keep the districts relatively equal in population.
MR. STEINBACH: This case rose from Georgia also. But this had to do with allocation of
national representatives in the House of Representatives, as you indicated. I
take it you also must have worked on this brief?
MR. TERRIS: Correct.
MR. STEINBACH: You ended up being selected to argue the case – a very significant case,
because it’s the first time the Supreme Court is addressing the question of
national reapportionment. How did it come about that you argued the case?
MR. TERRIS: I have no idea [laughter]. All I know is somebody came to me and said,
you’ve been assigned to argue this case. And to put it mildly, I was more
than slightly surprised. I was the most junior person in the Solicitor
General’s Office. I was 30 years old, and it was the most obvious case for
the Solicitor General to be arguing. I’ve got to assume that he wasn’t
overjoyed with the case. It’s possible also that we – I forgot how much time
we had, we did not have the standard half hour. I think it may have been ten
minutes versus twenty, since the [lawyers] who brought the case had most of
the time. But it was very strange that some punk like me would have been
assigned to argue it [laughter].
MR. STEINBACH: But you must have been gratified.
MR. TERRIS: Oh yes indeed. Absolutely.
MR. STEINBACH: And you knew at the time – or I guess I should ask, did you know at the time
how significant this case would turn out to be?
MR. TERRIS: Oh, sure. Yes. It was the first case on legislative reapportionment. It was
clearly going to have an enormous effect on the state reapportionments,
which were also pending at essentially the same time. You didn’t have to be
a great student of American law to have figured out how important this was.
MR. STEINBACH: Had you argued in the Supreme Court on other matters prior to Wesberry v.
MR. TERRIS: I had. I probably argued about seven or eight cases by that point, none at the
same level of importance.
MR. STEINBACH: So you realized the significance – that this would be the most important
argument you’d had so far. How did you prepare?
MR. TERRIS: I didn’t really prepare differently. First of all, I knew an awful lot about the
subject. The Solicitor General’s Office in general, at least at that time, [did
not assign cases strictly by subject matter]. There was some idea of this guy
knows this much about this or had handled a prior case, but it wasn’t done
absolutely. I was handling every single reapportionment case. I don’t why
exactly that occurred, but it happened. Anyway, I knew an awful lot about
reapportionment at that time. And I basically prepared the way I had been
trained to prepare in the Office. Obviously I read the briefs very, very
carefully. I read the main cases and other supporting material very carefully,
and I read every case, to some degree, some of them were of much less
importance and I didn’t spend as much time on them, and then I wrote out the
argument. I didn’t do what Robert Kennedy did and show up in front of the
Supreme Court with nothing in front of me [laughter].
MR. STEINBACH: So when you went into the room, did you have some sense which Justices
were with you, which were against, whether you’d win, whether you’d lose?
MR. TERRIS: Absolutely. In my lifetime at least, it’s been obvious in most of the cases in
the Supreme Court where most of the Justices line up, that yes, when you
walk in there, you have a very good idea who your friends are.
MR. STEINBACH: So what was your sense when you walked in, that you were going to be well
received by the Court, or that this was an uphill struggle?
MR. TERRIS: We took a very limited position, which I can’t say that I remember exactly
what the conversations were fifty years ago, but [we] were very nervous
about not biting off more than we thought the Supreme Court could chew.
Our argument that the case should be sent back so that the District Court
could reconsider this problem certainly meant that we were not totally
confident that we could prevail head-on on one man, one vote.
MR. STEINBACH: The Government’s position was that what had been structured in Georgia for
the Federal house seats was wrong, unconstitutional, but needed to be
MR. TERRIS: Actually, not. We did not ask the Supreme Court to say as much as you did,
but to say that it should go back to the District Court, which had not
considered the merits of the constitutional argument, in order to consider the
merits. We were obviously playing for time. It would start there, go to the
Court of Appeals, and end up in the Supreme Court, but that we weren’t
ready to make the full-out argument.
MR. STEINBACH: When you argued in front of the Court, did you have the sense that some of
the Justices wanted to go further than maybe the Government was
MR. TERRIS: I can’t really remember, but I’m sure I must have, because the Supreme
Court is always a very open discussion. There’s not too much concealment
of people’s views in Supreme Court arguments.
MR. STEINBACH: Tell me what you remember about that argument.
MR. TERRIS: I don’t remember very much, that’s the strange thing. I was enough of an
experienced advocate by that point so that I was perfectly confident being in
the Supreme Court. A lot of people would say, you must be so nervous, but I
really wasn’t. The rush of adrenaline once you’re in front of the Supreme
Court is such that it really wouldn’t have mattered whether it was the
Supreme Court or a magistrate court somewhere.
MR. STEINBACH: Do you remember any particular exchanges or banter with any of the
MR. TERRIS: I don’t.
MR. STEINBACH: How did you think you did?
MR. TERRIS: I basically thought I was a pretty adequate Supreme Court advocate. Maybe
some other people didn’t, but I thought I could handle it.
MR. STEINBACH: Did you leave the Wesberry argument feeling that your arguments had been
MR. TERRIS: Yes, I definitely did. And I also thought there was a substantial chance the
Court was going to go beyond our position. In a sense, we had planned it
that way, to the extent that by taking the limited position, we thought if there
were Justices ready to go where we wanted them to go, they would bite.
They would go on. In other words, we did nothing to be persuading them
“don’t do it.” We were just saying, you should be doing at least this much.
MR. STEINBACH: You argued this in November 1963 and the decision comes down in February
1964. Were you present in the Court when the decision came down?
MR. TERRIS: My guess is that I was, because the people in the Solicitor General’s Office at
that time, the announcements, I believe, were always on Monday, and we
went up every Monday.
MR. STEINBACH: The Supreme Court decided what in the Wesberry decision?
MR. TERRIS: Essentially it had to be equal. It didn’t have to be strictly equal; nobody
would [complain about] differentiations in population [of a couple thousand].
And you might also have some other reasons [for differentiations] like
county lines and things of that kind. But it was essentially one man, one
MR. STEINBACH: Applied to the House of Representatives.
MR. TERRIS: Correct.
MR. STEINBACH: Do you remember at all Justice John Marshall Harlan’s statement in Court
MR. TERRIS: I didn’t remember it until you had me read it.
MR. STEINBACH: I’ll just quote it. Justice Harlan said, “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.”*
He wrote that in dissent, obviously very troubled by
Lewis, Anthony. “Wide Changes Due.” New York Times, February 18, 1964.
what he considered quite a significant decision by the Court. Your
reflections on that?
MR. TERRIS: Well it’s interesting. When you had me read that, I thought about it for a
while. In many ways, of the people who served on the Court when I was
arguing regularly, the Justice I admired the most was Justice Harlan.
Because I guess I had been heavily influenced by my Harvard Law School
training in that I, to a considerable degree, maybe not as much as Archibald
Cox, but to a considerable degree, I had that idea that the law is not just to be
a weapon for whatever happens to be my political view. In deciding the
Justices I admired the most, my calculus was the number of times that they
voted on the Court differently than they would have voted in the Congress. I
often got Harlan’s vote. Most of the cases I argued I lost 5 to 4, with the
usual 5 to 4 split, and I usually got his vote – but I often thought that if he
had been in Congress, he would have voted differently than he voted in the
MR. STEINBACH: So that he would have favored the principle of one person, one vote, but
didn’t think it was constitutionally mandated.
MR. TERRIS: That’s correct. That’s just a guess on my part.
MR. STEINBACH: Were you surprised at the breadth of the Supreme Court’s decision in
Wesberry, going beyond what the Government had recommended and
actually declaring unconstitutional the lack of equality in House seats?
MR. TERRIS: I don’t know that I would say “surprised.” We certainly were doubtful about
that. As I said before, if we’d been fully confident that that’s where we
thought the Court was going to go, we wouldn’t have had this idea of sending
it back to the District Court in Georgia and have it move slowly up through
the courts. But on the other hand, I’m not sure that we thought it was a
tremendous surprise either. And I think that we thought that our strategy was
a good strategy – it might very well come out this way.
MR. STEINBACH: I noticed that you argued the Wesberry case on November 19, 1963, which
was three days before John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Any
recollections of what it was like inside the Solicitor General’s office or inside
the government when you heard that news?
MR. TERRIS: I do have a recollection, interestingly enough given the discussion we’re
having today. I had a radio, an old beat up radio, in my office. Most people
didn’t. I didn’t play it, but somebody came into the office and said the
President had been shot. In fact the person who came into my office and said
that and said I should start playing it was Steve Pollak. Obviously we were
shocked, which is an understatement. It was grim. The attitude in the
Solicitor General’s office during that Administration was so positive about
the kind of work that we were doing, the work on civil rights, the work on
other kinds of things – the feeling of working for the federal government in
the Kennedy Administration was just a tremendous feeling. And to have this
unbelievable event occur, it was really horrible, just horrible. People were
just not working for the government; it really was a sense of something very,
And by the way, this is a different topic but it’s why I think people
have badly misjudged the Kennedy Administration. I think that attitude in
the government and in the country as a whole was far more important than
whether he got eight bills through Congress or fifteen bills through Congress.
It’s a tremendous ability to move the country. This year, with President
Obama, if President Obama had some more of that, I think one would feel the
MR. STEINBACH: This is a great topic that we’re going to spend some time on in future
sessions, your whole sense of the Kennedy Justice years, your work after you
leave the Justice Department for Robert Kennedy himself. I think there’s so
much to explore we can come back to.
After John Kennedy is no longer President, the reapportionment battles
still continue, and in fact the Wesberry decision is handed down in February
when Lyndon Johnson is now the President and the Attorney General is still
Robert Kennedy. Is that correct?
MR. TERRIS: Yes.
MR. STEINBACH: So the next step in terms of these issues is whether the one person, one vote
principle should be applied to state legislatures, both state houses of
representatives and state senates. I take it that there was a lot of angst inside
the Solicitor General’s office about that particular question. What’s your
recollection of that?
MR. TERRIS: Of all the issues, except for the sit-in cases, which also had a tremendous
amount of controversy about them and which I did not handle, the one man,
one vote principle with regards to the state legislatures had, in my experience
– I’m sure other people had other experiences that I wasn’t involved with –
but in my experience was the most controversial issue that I had anything to
do with[. . . ]. Tony Lewis was running around the Justice Department as a
lobbyist for reapportionment, talking to everybody he could get his hands on.
I’m sure he talked multiple times to Robert Kennedy. I’m sure he talked
multiple times to Archibald Cox, and at a much lower level, he talked
multiple times to me and people in the Civil Rights Division. So people
knew even before the issues really had become joined, people knew what
was going on and people were talking to each other about it and Lewis was
telling people what was happening with the different players. The normal
course of events was the government’s position would be first formulated in
the Appellate Section in the Civil Rights Division, would go up to the
Assistant Attorney General, Burke Marshall, then there would be memos at
all those levels, and then it would come up to the Solicitor General’s office,
which since I was handling reapportionment, was me. So all these memos
MR. STEINBACH: About the state legislature reapportionment question?
MR. TERRIS: What should be the standard? How tough the reapportionment standard
should be, and most importantly, should it be in both houses at the state
legislature? There was a big argument going around that, after all if the
United States Senate is completely malapportioned, why shouldn’t the states
have that same kind of right for their senates? So these are the kinds of
issues that were floating around. All the memos that came up to the Solicitor
General were for a very strong, aggressive position of the federal
government. But everybody knew that this was not the Solicitor General’s
position. I wrote a memo, and I thought about this memo very carefully
about how this should be done. It was fifteen single-spaced pages in which
besides arguing the legal merits of it, I basically ended up by saying this was
an issue that in my opinion should be decided at the highest levels of the
government. I did not go outside the chain of command. I knew
Robert Kennedy personally during this time, I guess we’ll talk about that
some other time. So I could have gone to Robert Kennedy very, very easily,
outside channels. I did not do that, and I thought it would have been wrong
to do it. I wasn’t particularly worried I would lose my job, I just thought it
would be wrong to do it. First of all, I knew I wouldn’t have lost my job
because I would have had protection from Kennedy, but I wouldn’t have
done that. But what I did say was that it should be decided at the highest
level. Cox – I think this shows a very good thing about Cox – he sent that
memo on to the highest levels. I know now that it went to the White House.
He did not have to do that. So that precipitated the most interesting meeting I
was ever involved in in the government.
MR. STEINBACH: So there’s a series of memos written by various people inside the government
about what position should be taken on the state reapportionment question.
And, am I right, that most people’s sense is that the Solicitor General himself
is not really on board?
MR. TERRIS: He’s not on board.
MR. STEINBACH: So after these memos, there’s a meeting that you remember to discuss these
MR. TERRIS: Correct. Robert Kennedy held a meeting. Everybody that was important in
the Administration was at that meeting except for the President.
Larry O’Brien was there; Kenny O’Donnell was there; Sargent Shriver was
there. Steve Smith was there. Those were the most important political
people in the government at that time. Burke Marshall was there, not
because he was a politician but he was the Assistant Attorney General for the
Civil Rights Division and a very, very smart man. And I was there sitting in
the back [laughter]. I was there I think only because Kennedy wanted me
there. I’m sure he did not expect me to participate and didn’t intend for me
to participate. The meeting I’ve come to believe was a fake. It purported to
be a meeting to decide what the government’s position was. I believe in
retrospect that the meeting was carefully programmed to figure out a method
of getting Archibald Cox to take what Kennedy regarded as the right
MR. STEINBACH: Programmed by whom?
MR. TERRIS: By Robert Kennedy. It went like this: Kennedy called upon Cox to
summarize what the situation was. Cox gave his Harvard Law School
lecture. I don’t remember exactly, but it was certainly at least a half hour.
Nobody else talked during that period. The ultimate point of what Cox was
saying was the Supreme Court will never buy it – will never buy strict one
man, one vote. Of course this is a trump card for him. None of the other
people in the room, with the possible exception of Burke Marshall, can really
be the expert on what the Supreme Court was going to do. They can be
experts on politics and all kinds of things, what’s good government and
everything, but he’s the expert on what the Supreme Court is going to do.
During that lecture, deep into it, Kennedy leaves the room, goes and gets
himself some orange juice, comes back, sits down, Cox is still going on.
Kennedy then calls on O’Brien and Kenny O’Donnell: what’s the politics of
this? They say, it’s not going to help the Democratic party. These seats are
going to the suburbs, yes they’re going to move from the rural areas, which
are Republican, to the suburbs, but they’re mostly Republican too, and
they’re not going to the big cities. Kennedy then said, that doesn’t matter,
that this is a fundamental question of democracy, that people have got to
have equal ability to vote for the legislature. Then he comes back to Cox,
and Cox essentially does a short form repeat of his first lecture, and he says
again that the Supreme Court will never buy it. Kennedy, I’ll never forget
this, Kennedy says to Cox, “Archie, I’m sure you’ll find a way.” Well, this
was so shrewd. Archibald Cox had a very big ego. He had good reason to
have a big ego. What Kennedy had done, he had challenged him. He said to
him, I’m sure you can find a way to persuade the Supreme Court. Well, that
was so on the nose. The Solicitor General’s office is down the hall from the
Attorney General’s office, and so Cox and I walked together back to the
Solicitor General’s office. Cox was saying to me, “Kennedy doesn’t
understand.” And I kept thinking to myself, “You’re wrong about this one.
He understands.” We get back to the office, and Cox basically says to me
he’s going to write the brief.
MR. STEINBACH: He, Cox?
MR. TERRIS: Yes. He’s going to write the brief. He’s not sending it to – the normal thing
would be to have it go down to the Appellate Section of the Civil Rights
Division, and they write the brief. Cox writes the brief himself. And of
course he does just exactly what Kennedy challenged him to do. He sits
down to figure out a way that he’s going to almost get to where Kennedy
wants, not quite, almost to where Kennedy wants to persuade the Supreme
Court. So he writes the brief, he tells me not to touch it, it goes to the
Supreme Court. The Supreme Court goes beyond him to hold one man, one
vote, and the whole scenario I’m absolutely convinced is what
Robert Kennedy figured out is how he had to do it. He couldn’t take the risk
that Archibald Cox, who was a very principled man, would not sign the brief.
That was the huge danger. Yes, Kennedy could have ordered a brief to be
filed, and with Bruce Terris and Oscar Davis, then the First Assistant, would
have gone over the brief, but it would have been devastating, potentially
devastating, to do it that way. So that’s the way it went.
MR. STEINBACH: Devastating because the Court and the public —
MR. TERRIS: — would know that Archibald Cox believed that the brief was so wrong that
the Solicitor General wouldn’t even sign it.
MR. STEINBACH: So did Kennedy actually push Cox beyond the legal positions he really
wanted himself to articulate? Did Kennedy make in effect Cox go beyond
what he thought was right?
MR. TERRIS: No, he didn’t. I don’t think he ever went beyond that meeting. He was
shrewd enough that by challenging Cox, Cox would get almost to the right
place, or even get to the right place. He didn’t get absolutely to where I think
Kennedy wanted, but he got almost there. But the Supreme Court wasn’t
going to dice it at the end and say, we’re going to stop here. If you’re going
to get this far, you ought to have one man, one vote.
MR. STEINBACH: So it sounds like a remarkable example of political acumen on the part of the
MR. TERRIS: I think it was. It was a brilliant idea.
MR. STEINBACH: So Cox argues in the Supreme Court.
MR. TERRIS: And of course very persuasively. He was a tremendous oral advocate, after
MR. STEINBACH: This is, I take it, the cases that become Reynolds v. Sims [377 U.S. 533
(1964)], where the Supreme Court accepts and goes beyond the
government’s position and concludes that one person, one vote should apply
to both houses of all state legislatures. Are you in court that day when it was
decided, and do you remembering that dramatic announcement?
MR. TERRIS: Yes. I do, and of course I was overjoyed. And there was a little bit of a
discussion between Tony Lewis and Cox [laughter].
MR. STEINBACH: Tell us about that. Anthony Lewis and Archibald Cox in the Supreme Court?
MR. TERRIS: They’re leaving. It’s over and Tony Lewis says, what’s it like to be at the
Second Constitutional Convention? Because of course to Tony Lewis this
was enormously important. And Cox says, it’s awful [laughter].
MR. STEINBACH: So yet another victory for the Solicitor General he’d rather have not received.
But for you this must have been a sweet vindication after all these years.
MR. TERRIS: Yes. For a young lawyer to have had the opportunity to be able to participate
in this kind of thing was really fantastic. What can you say?
This controversy over what the right standard should be for state
legislatures has one more small chapter. There was a case that came up after
the four cases that were decided by the Supreme Court that included the
Reynolds case, in which Robert Kennedy was no longer the Attorney
General, and Nicholas Katzenbach was the Attorney General. I believe it
involved Colorado but I’m not 100% sure that I remember that correctly. I
got a call one day from the Attorney General, which was not usually within
my routine, and Mr. Katzenbach asked me to come and talk to him. I went
down there, and he said, I’m really worried about the Colorado case – I’m
worried that Archibald Cox is not going to be willing to support
reapportionment in the Colorado case. So we had a discussion about the
Colorado case. I can’t even remember what the particular nuance was, but
there was a nuance that hadn’t been decided, or at least thought yet to be
decided, in the Reynolds case and the other cases decided at that time. So
Mr. Katzenbach wanted me to talk to him about how he could talk to Cox
about persuading him to take the right position in that case. I talked to him.
I edited that brief too, and it came out the way that Katzenbach wanted,
which was the same as what Kennedy had wanted, so apparently Katzenbach
was successful in persuading Cox.
MR. STEINBACH: Bruce, some of what we’ve talked about today you’ve summarized at greater
detail in a piece you wrote in Supreme Court History in 2007,†
attach to the transcript of this interview. I wonder if you would just for a
second reflect on the importance of the reapportionment cases. What was the
end result – was this good for the country? How do you feel about your role
in having been part of these historic decisions?
MR. TERRIS: 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
Terris, Bruce J. “Attorney General Kennedy Versus Solicitor General Cox: The Formulation
of the Federal Government’s Position in the Reapportionment Cases.” Supreme Court History
32 (2007): 335-345.
somehow if this hadn’t occurred it would still have occurred. It had to occur.
The country couldn’t exist that way.
MR. STEINBACH: And looking back personally after a career with many other
accomplishments, your sense of your own pride and satisfaction in having
been involved in the reapportionment decisions?
MR. TERRIS: I feel very happy about it and proud of it. I’ve been in some other important
kinds of issues, but this is clearly the most important, and it was again, for a
young lawyer, it was mind-boggling that you had that kind of chance. I work
with young lawyers here and I think the level they’re allowed to work on,
then I think to myself, what I was working on when I was in my late 20s and
early 30s and it’s overwhelming really.
MR. STEINBACH: It not only turned out well, it turned out to be historic.
Well, thank you. We will move on in other sessions with other parts of your
life. Thank you, Bruce.