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Setback to delay census lawsuit

Utah's case against the federal government that challenges the 2000 Census count and threatens to take away a house seat from North Carolina was dealt a possible blow Tuesday.

Utah filed a lawsuit in January requesting that the case be heard by a three-judge panel, which would allow for a speedier appeals process.

Judge Dee Benson, who would have been one of the judges on that panel, denied the request on Tuesday. He will hear the case alone on March 20. If Utah had been granted a three-judge panel, the state could have bypassed the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals and appealed directly to the U.S. Supreme Court if it lost its case.

"The denial of that request means . . . it could add a second step in the appellate process. That could hold it up as long as a year," said Ray Hintze, Utah chief deputy attorney general. "The ones that will really suffer from the delay are Utah and North Carolina," who may wait for a decision before officially redrawing political boundaries.

The state is challenging the Census Bureau's practice of excluding overseas missionaries from the apportionment count. Utah has more than 11,000 residents who are serving missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in foreign countries and were not counted by the Census last year, something the state argues is religious discrimination.

The bureau counts those residents living overseas who are stationed abroad for military purposes. North Carolina's large overseas military population put the state in a position to gain a house seat in December when the numbers were released.

Benson explained in court documents that he denied Utah's request for a three-judge panel because the constitutionality of the apportionment count is not being challenged.

Hintze said he did not expect Benson to deny the request.

"Quite frankly, we were surprised. We thought it would be granted," he said.

So far, all three parties in the lawsuit have been cooperating to move the case along quickly, and Hintze said he expects they will continue to cooperate.

Meantime, Utah awaits the figures for redrawing political boundaries, which will be released sometime this month. The bureau is releasing the data state by state, with figures being sent to 11 states this week.

The first sets of figures were being sent to Virginia and New Jersey Wednesday after the Bush administration announced that only statistics from the detailed national "head count" would be used to remap political district boundaries.

Nine other states — Arkansas, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont and Wisconsin — will get their data by week's end. By law, all states must receive their redistricting data by April 1.

The figures are crucial because they will be used to redraw congressional, state and legislative political districts. They're also controversial: On Tuesday, Commerce Secretary Don Evans said that only raw figures will be released to states, not adjusted figures that supporters say could protect against an estimated net undercount of 3.3 million people.

Evans, whose department oversees the Census Bureau, agreed with a Census Bureau recommendation that said the raw head-count numbers are more accurate than the adjusted figures. He called the 2000 Census the "most accurate in the country's history."

Supporters of statistical adjusting were not surprised by Evans' decision but nevertheless urged him to back adjustment anyway as a way to protect against an undercount of primarily minorities.

Contributing: The Associated Press