Court rejects Utah bid for extra congressional seat

Contested seat goes to North Carolina with decision that upholds census results.

North Carolina has fended off a challenge from Utah over which state should be apportioned the last seat in the next US House of Representatives.

In a decision that could help tip the balance of power in Congress next year between Democrats and Republicans, the US Supreme Court Thursday threw out a lawsuit by Utah charging that the Census Bureau used impermissible statistical methods to supplement its head count of the US population two years ago.

Instead, the nation's highest court endorsed the final results of the 2000 census, declining to invalidate the population numbers that are used to apportion the 435 seats in the House.

Utah had asked the justices to declare the census invalid, because the population numbers were supplemented with statistical estimates rather than relying on an "actual enumeration," as called for in the US Constitution.

The statistical estimates boosted North Carolina's population by 900 residents, qualifying the state for the last House seat. Had the statistical estimates not been used, the House seat would have gone to Utah.

Some analysts say that the balance of power in Congress could come down to the difference between having a North Carolina Democrat or a Utah Republican.

The splintered decision marks the most explicit ruling yet by the high court on the constitutional imperatives of census taking. The justices have examined this issue three times in the past six years.

The bottom line: Statistical estimates can be a valid way to count the US population for purposes of apportioning congressional seats among the states.

In 1999, the court ruled that so-called statistical sampling could not be used as part of the overall census to estimate the size of the population in a particular geographical region.

Yesterday, the high court drew a distinction between impermissible sampling and the type of statistical technique used to impute the number of residents living at a particular address based on the number of residents next door.

That section of the ruling was supported by five justices.

"We do not believe the Constitution makes the distinction that Utah seeks to draw," writes Justice Stephen Breyer for the majority. "The Constitution's text does not specify any such limitation. Rather the text uses a general word 'enumeration,' that refers to a counting process without describing the count's methodological details."

In recent years, there has been considerable debate over how best to conduct the census. Advocates of the use of statistical methods – generally liberals – say that a mere head count of the population will disproportionately undercount certain groups, particularly minorities, children, and renters. To properly allocate power within Congress, it is necessary to count the entire population as accurately as possible, not simply count those who are the easiest to locate, they say.

Opponents of such statistical methods – generally conservatives – say the Founding Fathers were more interested in implementing a uniform system that could not be changed from year to year or manipulated to skew the results. They add that an undercount is acceptable because it would likely apply equally throughout the country.

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