Utah Ponders Reapportionment Lawsuit

Posted October 14, 2003 at 6:27pm

The Utah attorney general’s office, hoping the Census Bureau will extend the deadline for additional recounts, has regrouped its legal team in anticipation of another lawsuit over reapportionment.

Ray Hintze, the Utah office’s chief deputy, said Tuesday that the state has reassembled its team of attorneys, including Brigham Young University associate law professor Thomas Lee, who participated in two previous Supreme Court lawsuits seeking an additional seat in the House of Representatives for the state.

“They are reviewing it and researching what legal obstacles we have to [clear] in order to get the claim heard again,” Hintze said.

The state’s renewed activity follows a Sept. 30 announcement by the Census Bureau that it double-counted 2,673 students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Following the 2000 Census, North Carolina had narrowly edged out Utah for an additional House seat. But now, Utah officials calculate that margin has decreased to 80 residents, and they are hopeful that the bureau will allow them to seek additional recounts that could further reduce the gap.

“The numbers are so close now … small changes in the count could make the difference,” Hintze said, although he acknowledged that reviews could also decrease the population count in Utah.

“Until the numbers change there’s nothing we can or will do,” he said of a new lawsuit.

Utah officials asked the Census Bureau earlier this month to extend its “Count Questions Resolution” program, which expired Sept. 30. That would allow Utah to ask for additional reviews of its own population counts.

A bureau spokeswoman said a decision will not likely be issued for several weeks.

“We are trying to finish up the outstanding cases from North Carolina that were part of the Count Questions Resolution program,” said LaVerne Collins, assistant to the associate director for communications.

However, she noted, the resolution program was not designed to settle disputes over the apportionment of House seats.

“No changes will be made to the apportionment or redistricting counts as a result of this program,” a fact sheet issued by the bureau states.

The program is primarily used to adjust for town or county boundaries, and does not typically affect a state’s total population count, Collins said.

In the meantime, some state and federal Utah officials are turning their attention to another possible avenue for attaining a fourth Congressional seat.

House Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) has discussed introducing legislation to create a full-fledge House Member for the District of Columbia, which is currently represented by a non-voting Delegate.

In one of several variations being considered by Davis, Utah would also get a new seat. The House would temporarily grow to 437 seats, until the next reapportionment cycle following the 2010 Census.

Utah Rep. Chris Cannon (R), who serves on the Government Reform panel, will focus much of his energy on helping to draft the bill, said spokeswoman Meghan Riding.

“From his point of view, the thing that he will have his hands on the most is the legislation,” Riding said. Cannon was traveling and could not be reached for comment.

Additionally, several officials said even if Utah does not match North Carolina’s numbers, a close population count between the two states could provide momentum for the legislation.

“It makes it much more compelling for what Mr. Davis is talking about,” said Utah Rep. Rob Bishop (R).

Bishop said any additional lawsuits are a “moot issue” barring a final count from the Census Bureau. “If they don’t come up with any new miscounts in North Carolina … we would still be technically short,” he said.

While Bishop has no plans to push for the Davis legislation — which the Virginia lawmaker has said he will introduce this fall — he called the possibility “intriguing” and the “easiest approach politically” to gaining an additional seat.

The Utah attorney general’s office has not played any role in shaping the pending Davis bill, Hintze said, but added: “Obviously we would support the bill because … it would stop the fight [with North Carolina] and give us both a new seat.”

Davis’ office did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

Several voting rights advocacy groups that are seeking to have Davis co-opt their proposals for the legislation nonetheless agreed that linking a Utah seat to one for the District would likely help their cause.

“Each of them wants to make sure they get full representation,” said Walter Smith, executive director of the D.C. Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. “Obviously North Carolina doesn’t want to lose a seat, but Utah believes it’s entitled to an additional seat … and folks in the District believe they ought to have representation as well.”

John Forster, of the Committee for the Capital City, calls the Utah tie-in a “secondary issue,” but said it will not drain support from any possible bill.

“Reapportionment is a political issue that’s always there, that’s always going to happen … the component of that that’s working to get D.C. voting rights is good. I’m in favor of it if it makes our effort more visible and more winnable,” Forster said.