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Utah, N.C. argue before high court for House seat

From Terry Frieden

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Attorneys for the states of Utah and North Carolina argued over the U.S. Census Bureau's counting methods before the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday with a congressional seat at stake.

In the 2000 census, Utah came up just short of winning an additional seat in the House of Representatives because the Census Bureau uses a method called "imputation," which estimates the number of people who live at addresses where census takers are unable to determine who lives there.

North Carolina, a more populous state, benefited from the method and was given an additional House seat in the required reapportionment that follows each census.

Utah challenged the method, but the federal government sided with North Carolina and defended the Census Bureau's practice. The state then took its argument to the Supreme Court.

Much of the spirited, one-hour debate Wednesday focused on whether Utah had the right to bring its challenge to the court after the census results were known. A lawyer representing North Carolina said the issue should come before the agency that conducted the count -- not the high court.

"North Carolina believes a challenge should be brought before the Census (Bureau)," said Walter Dellinger, a former Clinton administration Justice Department official arguing for North Carolina.

But several justices disputed the contention, saying Utah could not have known in advance they would be aggrieved by the census methods.

"It seems unfair to Utah," Justice Stephen Breyer said. "For all they know, the current system will benefit them."

Imputation came under scrutiny and criticism as the justices wondered what would properly constitute a proper estimate of who lives at an address. Justices asked what would be a proper estimate regarding a home's occupants -- whether lights go on and off, if a car is in the garage, or if pizza is delivered and consumed, for example.

"Not necessarily," said Thomas Lee, an attorney representing Utah. "There are seasonal homes, and some things that look like homes are actually businesses."

The estimations, said Lee, amount to "sampling."

The justices issued no decision, but North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said a ruling in favor of Utah's challenge would create "chaos."


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