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Top court agrees to hear Utah census case

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Utah is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court to argue the state deserves a fourth congressional representative based on the U.S. Census Bureau's faulty counting method during the 2000 Census.

"This is a huge case for Utah," said Ray Hintze, chief deputy in the Utah Attorney General's Office. "We are extremely excited and encouraged the Supreme Court has agreed to hear it."

The Supreme Court agreed Tuesday morning that it would hear oral arguments of Utah's appeal of a November federal court ruling that rejected the state's case.

Utah's attorneys are attacking "imputation," a counting method that was used by census officials for about 0.2 percent of the population. When a household could not be reached after several attempts, census enumerators would estimate how many people lived in the home based on similar homes in the neighborhood.

Imputation benefited North Carolina by adding 32,457 residents to the state's population, while giving Utah only an additional 5,385. If those numbers end up being discarded, it would more than make up for the 857-person shortfall that gave North Carolina a 13th representative, leaving Utah with three.

State leaders and attorneys are convinced the imputed numbers should be thrown out based on a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that requires a count of actual people and prohibits guessing or scientific adjustment.

While Hintze expressed a great deal of encouragement with the Supreme Court's decision to hear the case, he acknowledged the state still cannot declare victory.

"This obviously isn't the final win . . . it's simply the final step to the Supreme Court," he said. "We're so pleased this court has recognized this case is important enough to be heard."

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff also said the Supreme Court's decision to hear the case was a step in the right direction.

"We're floating around here today," he said. "Obviously we still have to win, but at least we have a chance."

Though the Supreme Court did not say in its decision when it would hear the case, Utah's lead counsel, Tom Lee, said he is hopeful the case will be heard and decided before the end of the court's current session, which ends in June. Both North Carolina and Utah will have to make last-minute changes before the November election if the court decides in Utah's favor and the seat goes to Utah instead of North Carolina.

Lee said Tuesday's decision confirms state leaders made the right decision in pursuing the case this far.

"It would have been very easy to back down," he said. "They were right to stand up to criticism (and) have the courage to pursue the case to the Supreme Court."

The Utah Attorney General's Office is hoping to keep its Washington, D.C., law firm of Sidley, Austin, Brown and Wood since the firm specializes in Supreme Court cases, Hintze said. But in order to do that the Utah State Legislature must agree to foot the bill.

Hintze said so far his office has spent about $600,000 on the case, with costs expected to reach $1 million. He said the Attorney General's Office is asking the Legislature to reimburse it for the costs incurred so far and for the additional $400,000 in anticipated costs.

Tuesday's decision to hear Utah's second lawsuit came months after the Supreme Court refused to hear Utah's first lawsuit against the Census Bureau.

The state filed its first suit against the Census Bureau last January, arguing the bureau acted contrary to the Constitution when it excluded some 11,000 Utah residents serving as missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in foreign countries during the 2000 count while counting other overseas populations such as military personnel.

A three-judge panel in Salt Lake City rejected the state's arguments in April, and in November the Supreme Court essentially agreed, refusing to give the state a chance to argue before Supreme Court justices.

Though the rejection of that case was disappointing, attorneys for Utah have said all along they thought the state's second lawsuit dealing with imputation was a much stronger case. Indeed, though a separate three-judge panel rejected Utah's arguments in that case, one judge dissented, agreeing with Utah.


E-mail: ehayes@desnews.com